Saturday, 11 June 2016

Capturing the Moment: William Henry Fox Talbot



In a small dark square on the wall is an image of a little girl. Her hands are neatly placed over the lap of her pale dress. She looks stage right - not engaging with, but keeping still for the portrait-taker. I study it closely to see whether I can discern a father’s dotage for this beautiful little girl or whether it’s merely duty: assisting the patriarch in the furthering of science. Perhaps it’s in the eye of the beholder. Ela was 11 years old when this calotype was taken in 1843. She wouldn’t have known the moment would be captured for strangers to scrutinise 173 years later in a museum, though the woman she became may have realised its significance. She died in 1893.

Photography didn’t come about by virgin birth. The Camera Obscura was commonplace amongst  the learned as was the Camera Lucida - a device that projected an image through a lens onto paper whereupon it was traced by hand. It was invented by William Hyde Wollaston in 1807 and William Talbot just didn’t have the knack. Sitting beside lake Como in Italy, he tried to render the image being beamed onto the paper but found his efforts woeful. He thought that there had to be a better way. If he’d been adept, things might’ve been different.

Talbot officially invented the calotype in 1840. The process enabled multiple images to be made from the original calotype as other papers could be pressed against the material to get the chemicals printed onto them - little different to the potato prints taught in primary schools today.

One of the first images by Talbot you will see is of a latticed window from his own Lacock Abbey Estate in Dorset. It’s credited as being his original calotype from 1835 that he took using a modified Camera Obscura. He understood how an image’s capture might be accentuated by combining a small image-sized back frame with large aperture lens at the front. He used a microscope and objective telescope lens (the large outer lens) respectively to burn the silver salts he’d coated the photo plate with. He went on to experiment with silver nitrate which had a stronger and quicker reaction to being struck by light. The latticed window is now a faded violet ghost of simple geometry but a perfect photo of a window nonetheless. Doubtless, the strong contrast between the daylight pouring through the panes in 1835’s blistering summer, and the dark interior of the room refined it. It’s haunting.

The 1900s was a time when capturing images without brushes or pastels was not seen as an art but necromancy. It was an age in which scientists, philosophers and scholars were also the landed gentry and members of parliament with multiple-barrel names. Talbot stood as a Liberal MP and devoted his time between philosophy, science, photography (though it wasn’t known as such then) and Whig politics. He would later study archaeology - especially Assyriology.

The medium had been explored earlier by people like Thomas Wedgwood. It’s fascinating to see how a personal travail can lead towards genuine science. Though this exhibition is about Talbot, it’s also about such notables as Frederick Herschel, Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) had trained as an architect and worked as a stage designer for the Paris Opera. He designed panoramic backdrops & dioramas. His interest in taking photographic images came from his passion for finding better ways of capturing light in paintings as well as making perspective more realistic. He can be credited with the first immortalised images - Daguerrotypes. They were sharper but faded quickly. He was, as we shall see, also open to accusation.

The exhibition makes clear that many people were travelling in the same direction and as is the case in science, everything is connected. It was the chemists (more formerly referred to as alchemists - the search for the process of turning base metals to gold) who discovered light-sensitive chemicals. The innovation of the textile loom (Joseph-Marie Jacquard 1801) used punched card that would come to make reproduced postcards possible. Pioneering work on electrical discharge carried out in Germany and Holland would go on to inform flash photography with portable Leiden Jars. The last was demonstrated to the Royal Society by Talbot too. I’m aware that the camera in my smart phone uses none of the technology pioneered during this period but the microcomputers within required the work of another Royal Society contemporary - Charles Babbage - grandfather of computers to put us on this road. The images inside my phone have no physical mass yet still exist. I don’t fully understand it myself. 

Some of the wondrous items on display include Camera Obscuras, a Camera Lucida and a Solar Microscope - this last was used to project things like fleas onto a large screen and was used as a carnival attraction. People would queue up for this in droves. Science was a freak show!

There are tangents in this offering that go off in amusing or interesting directions: Hippolyte Bayard was a French scientist who possibly pioneered permanent images before Daguerre. Daguerre allegedly advised Bayard to delay announcing his discovery to the French Academy of Sciences just so he could beat him to it. Bayard resorted to using the process by taking a self portrait of himself as a bare chested drowned man and accused Daguerre of being responsible for his decay with an accompanying “j’accuse” dirge (Bayard actually lived for a further 47 years). John Dillwyn Llewelyn (1810-1882) made nature photographs with stuffed animals. To anyone with copies of Audubon prints or some of the first bird field guides, renderings of stuffed wildlife with legs akimbo, hair erect and bulging glass eye deathstares will be familiar with what he started. There’s also a photo of the construction of Nelson’s column from 1844 on display and Reverend George Wilson Bridges’ pictures of the Great Sphinx of Giza in 1851 when its mane was like a bob - the tumbling sideburns were added later.

The majority of the subjects Talbot took however, remind me of our own modern efforts insofar as they’re mundane and one-dimensional like the straight study of Balliol College in Oxford. Apart from road resurfacing and the odd burglar alarm, Balliol looks exactly the same now. Its only interest is the age. Our modern snaps can be just as unimaginative. Photography as a creative art would come later. At the same time, it makes me feel closer to him as my own efforts are often underwhelming.

What would become an amateur pastime for millions in the ensuing decades and centuries, this exhibition puts the discipline of photography where it actually started: gentleman’s scientific endeavour (I’m afraid women were overlooked). The art as we recognise it now, whether it be the close humane renderings of Steve McCurry, capturing character like Annie Leibovitz, grasping the drama of situations like Don McCullin or even the atmospheric magic of landscape caught by Michael Kenna, has a much humbler origin - a great grandparent. Here, it’s unearthed in Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph at the London Science Museum.

This exhibition currently makes an apology for the thumping and drilling coming from the floor above. It isn’t Crossrail gone off on a catastrophic detour but the Mathematics Centre designed by the late Zaha Hadid in construction so we can easily forgive for what we will soon receive.


With a gift aid donation, it’s just £8 for adults - fantastic value for four rooms of groundbreaking images and an understanding of the origins of an art available to everyone but easily taken for granted. Oh, and of course - photography’s not allowed!