Thirty nine years ago almost to the day, when I was teaching photojournalism and photohistory at The University of Texas at Austin I was joined by Roy Flukinger outside Richard Greffe’s house. We braced ourselves on Roy’s old brown Chevelle. The collective memories are now a bit hazy but on balance it seems that Mike Murphy was holding the camera rather than it being mounted on a tripod. On close examination it is agreed that the tumblers appear to be inappropriately small for iced tea. One of us (not Roy) had liberated a flash gun from the surplus box of their employer. After mutually bolstering our courage, Richard pulled the trigger and the flashpowder ignited. There is a visceral thrill in hearing the whoosh, feeling the heat and suddenly having the world lit up, ever so briefly – my hairdo has been somewhat asymmetrical ever since. Just try to replicate that experience in a mobile phone app.
Nowadays, it seems that any movie where a photographer can be worked into the script mandates said photographer to set off some flash powder, indoors or out, day or night, often with a blatant disregard for the era in which the film was set. The flash emphasises the importance of the moment in the way that the click of a shutter or the opening of an iris diaphragm apparently falls short of conveying. As we move through film history we evolve from the huge flashbulbs of the press photographers of the 1940s to the miniature bulbs and flashcubes of the 1960s beach films to the electronic strobes of the 1970s fashion photographers. In more recent times, our mobile phones briefly overtax an LED to produce a burst of strobe-like light.
There are two significant contributions made by these accessories. The most obvious is that they are a source of illumination capable of supplementing or replacing natural light. The early studio photographers were wholly at the mercy of the weather and much of the thrust towards increasing the light sensitivity of the Daguerreotype and the Calotype was aimed towards broadening the days when portraits could be taken for profit. Unlike sunlight, however, artificial lighting can be turned on and off at will and in proper circumstances can be made to exist for a very short period of time.
Earlier this week (one hundred fifteen years ago) Henry Talbot conducted an experiment in the basement laboratory of The Royal Institution in London. It was in their journal in 1802 that Thomas Wedgwood’s photographic experiments were published and it was in the library above that Talbot’s photogenic drawings were first revealed to the public in an exhibition on 25 January 1839. The experiment was conducted on 14 June 1851 and the next day Talbot wrote to his friend Michael Faraday: “The important experiment tried yesterday at the Royal Instn succeeded perfectly. A printed paper was fastened to a disk, which was then made to revolve as rapidly as possible. The battery was discharged, and on opening ye Camera it was found to have received an impression. The image of the printed letters was just as sharp as if the disk had been motionless. I am not aware of this experiment having ever been made before … if a truly instantaneous photographic representation of an object has never been obtained before (as I imagine that it has not) I am glad that it should have been first accomplished at the Royal Instn .”
Between writing his draft (which survives) and the final letter sent to Faraday, Talbot deleted a fragmented speculation proving that he understood the commercial implications of his experiment: ” wch demonstrates ye possibility of that truly instants photographic portraiture representation – “which demonstrates the possibility of that truly instantaneous photographic portraiture representation…”
A lot of myth has built up over the years about this experiment. At some point the idea took hold that the printed paper was a page from The Times and this unfounded statement still echoes. Talbot employed an open air spark – there was no flashtube or flashbulb or other such device. This was certainly not a public demonstration (although there may have been a laboratory assistant on duty) but Talbot told Faraday that he would “be happy to repeat it in the presence of some of our Scientific friends, but I wish first to obtain effects on a greater scale of development.” On 19 June, Talbot presented a paper, “Note on Instantaneous Photographic Images,” to The Royal Society. In this he revealed that “having recently met with a photographic process of great sensibility, I was desirous of trying whether it were possible to obtain a truly instantaneous representation of an object in motion. A printed paper was fixed upon a circular disc, which was then made to revolve on its axis as rapidly as possible. When it had obtained its greatest velocity, an electric battery, kindly placed at my disposal by Mr. Faraday, was discharged in front of the disc, lighting it up with a momentary flash. A camera containing a very sensitive plate of glass had been placed in a suitable position, and on opening this after the discharge, an image was found of a portion of the words printed on the paper. They were perfectly well-defined and wholly unaffected by the motion of the disc.”
The technical details about this experiment are sparse and potentially confusing. The reference to a ‘battery’ does not refer to those expensive pesky little devices that power so many of our things today – those batteries generate electricity through chemical reactions and the voltage from any chemical battery in Talbot’s day would have been far too low to produce a rapid spark. Talbot instead was adopting the military term, using ‘battery’ to refer to an interconnected bank of Leyden jars. Now generally known as capacitors, Leyden jars did not produce any electricity but instead were storage devices for an electrical charge. They could be connected to a static electricity machine, such as the one below, and would build up a charge from its output. You might think of a garden hose and a bucket. The hose (the static machine) can pass only such much water (electricity) at a time. However, if you use the hose (machine) to fill the bucket (Leyden jar) over time then you can then quickly dowse your friend by releasing all the water at once (or discharge a good spark from the bank of Leyden jars). One other hint about Talbot’s methodology comes from Faraday’s response, which indicates that Talbot must have concentrated the light from the spark by using a mirror: “I do not know what mirror you used but I should have thought that a deep one would answer better than a shallow one. Such as they use at the lighthouses collects ⅔ or even ¾ of the rays which issue from the light in the focus.” Lighthouses used concave mirrors, sometimes of polished silver-coated copper, sometimes of coated glass, occasionally segmented. Simple spherical ones reflected the light back to the source but then it scattered again. Parabolic ones were much more difficult to fabricate but they concentrated the light into a beam, much like a searchlight.
Henry Talbot, like many of his peers, had long been interested in electricity and its effects. On the left we see what is affectionately known as ‘Talbot’s Head’, donated to the Royal Scottish Museum by Matilda Talbot in the 1930s. Thought to have been made around 1850, it might have been a toy for his children or a demonstration device for his friends. The friction electrostatic machine next to it taught valuable scientific lessons in an entertaining way. When the insulated wood handle was cranked, a static charge built up between the revolving glass and the felt pads – this was temporarily stored in the brass ball. At a distance this charge could be used to lift the long hair of the doll’s head (some of you may have tried this by touching a Van de Graaff generator). More dramatically, Talbot could use a static discharge wand like that on the right, invoking a sudden spark while being protected by the glass handle.
One can trace numerous and persistent influences that led Talbot down this path towards instantaneous flash photography. There are ample indications within his research notes of an early and sustained interest in the interaction between motion and vision. He returned to this subject many times in his correspondence with colleagues. On 4 March 1833 (just a few months before Henry conceived of the art of photography while on the shores of Lake Como), he wrote to Sir John Herschel reporting that he “saw a very pretty experiment last Friday at the Royal Institution” by Charles Wheatstone about electric sparks. “This has brought to my mind a train of experiments which I formerly executed, attended with interesting results, one of which astonished me much when I first beheld it. It is a method of rendering the image of a body which is in the most rapid motion entirely fixed, so that you can see what happens to it under such circumstances with as much ease as if it were at rest.” Confessing his continuing weakness to procrastination, he confessed that “I don’t know why I have suffered these experiments to slumber in my portfolio for seven years; but I am now thinking of presenting them in the form of a short paper to the Royal Society.”
On 5 February 1854, he wrote to William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, that he was “about to propose to the Polytechnic institution to get up an experiment of instantaneous photography that can be shown to the Public in a lecture. They possess a great hydroElectric machine capable of giving a powerful Electric flash – it all depends upon that – a small electric battery is not strong enough.” William Armstrong’s giant machine exploited the peculiar property of a jet of steam to produce static electricity. Bolstered by a coil, its flash would have been most impressive but there is no record of the Polytechnic Institution taking up Talbot’s idea.
It puzzles me that Talbot’s spark became so little known later in the twentieth century. It had a continuous recognition within photographic circles during Talbot’s lifetime and indeed long after his death. In 1859, The Photographic News considered some of the advances in high speed photography but found they fell short “when we try to bring the mind to appreciate the rapidity with which Mr. Talbot performed his crucial experiment at the Royal Institution … the time occupied in a revolution of the wheel was a planetary cycle when compared with the time of duration of the illuminating spark, which according to the most beautiful trustworthy experiments of Professor Wheatstone, only occupied the millionth part of a second in its duration.” An 1865 report in the British Journal of Photography on the newly-discovered magnesium light recalled “Mr. Talbot’s famous experiment at the Royal Institution. A sheet of printed newspaper was fixed on a wheel revolving with great rapidity” (perhaps this was the start of the Times newspaper fable). Two years later, the BJP again recalled “Mr. Fox Talbot’s famous experiment,” which they felt still “affords the best instance of rapidity known in connection with photography.” In 1904, Wilson’s Photographic Magazine marveled that “in 1851, at the Royal Institution, Fox Talbot, by a modification of the old slow albumen process, took a picture, which for instantaneity it would be hard to beat now.” As a distant relative and proud owner of an original copy of The Pencil of Nature, one could argue that Sir Thomas Mansel Franklin was prejudiced, but in 1922 he proudly boasted that “Fox Talbot’s work gives a direct lead to the line which has been followed, with extraordinarily interesting results, in instantaneous photography.”
But what about those whites of egg promised in the headline? While the main breakthrough that has engaged historians was Talbot’s innovation of electric flash photography, the chances are that if he were with us today, Henry Talbot would have seen that as the smaller part of this demonstration. In his 27 November 1851 technical explanation, Talbot devoted most of his text to explaining his ‘Amphitype’ process. This was an albumen on glass negative process for which he only took credit for having “effected a harmonious combination of several previously ascertained and valuable facts.” He credited Dr. Thomas Woods of Parsonstown for exploring the photographic properties of iodide of iron and Robert Hunt for those of the sulphate of iron. By an exquisitely balanced use of these chemicals, Talbot managed to produce an albumen on glass plate that far exceeded the sensitivity of anything that he had done before. The spark was really as much a test of the sensitivity of this process as it was a demonstration of lighting. The resulting plate looked negative by transmitted light but positive by reflected light – hence, his term of Amphitype, “or, as it may be rendered in other words, ‘ambiguous image.’ ”
Some readers may be confused by Talbot’s term of Amphitype, which in some circles is synonymous with the term Ambrotype. This word actually belongs to Talbot, although like so many other photographic ones it took a path throughSir John Herschel. On 25 March 1843, Herschel described a new family of photographic processes to Talbot and proposed calling them the Celænotype (κελαινος). Talbot immediately replied that “With respect to the name “Celænotype” it appears to me not sufficiently descriptive; for the positive Calotype process affords copies of Engravings equally sharp and black, & which might be mistaken for real engravings – But as your new process involves a very remarkable peculiarity viz. the change from negative to positive of the same photograph, I should wish the name given to it to be one allusive to that fact, and if you are not yet decided upon your nomenclature I would suggest that the above peculiarity might be concisely and clearly expressed by the name of Amphitype. The Greek name for “to change” is somewhat too long for convenient use (αλλασσειν) unless abbreviated into allotype; but the other is more classical.” Herschel found his process “one and not the least puzzling & capricious. It has led me such a dance as I never before was led by any physical enquiry and I have not yet succeeded in reducing it to a definite and certainly successful process giving clear and produceable results, in consequence of which I have not yet published any account of it. – Meanwhile I thank you for your name “Amphitype” which suits it in more ways than you had in view when you suggested it & which I shall certainly adopt for it – in preference to Kelænotype or Allotype.” Eight years later, when Talbot invented his albumen on glass process, Herschel encouraged him, saying “Use the name of Amphitype by all means for your beautiful invention – My process to wch I gave that name I could never bring to a certainty – sometimes the effects were excellent but 9 times out of 10 the results were spoiled & no doubt by perseverance it might be assured – but it is lost in the marvels which arise daily So pray have no scruple I long to see some of your products – For the Solar Eclipse such a process will be invaluable.”
Talbot included the Amphitype in his 1851 patent, barely mentioning the rotating printed page frozen by a spark that had demonstrated its efficacy.
In 1894, four decades after Talbot’s spark, Arthur Mason Worthington gave a lecture in the same Royal Institution building in which Talbot had conducted his experiment. Like Talbot, he employed Leyden jars to store up the electricity for his spark, which he estimated lasted less than ten millionths of a second. Vastly improved sensitivity of the photographic negative materials, however, made a critical difference. Presaging the more widely known work of Harold Edgerton, Worthington was able to capture what Talbot could only have imagined so many years before.
Those readers who have slogged along this far are probably asking, where is the illustration of the printed page illustrated by the spark? Sadly, we don’t have any proof that it exists any more. Since it was an Amphitype with its duality of negative and positive, Talbot probably never attempted to print it – the density would have been too weak for printing on salted paper and it could be readily viewed directly as a positive. He may have made only the one plate and never attempted the spark experiment again. But surely the promising speed of the Amphitype would have coaxed him into making other experiments with this process. Back in the 1980s when I was first evaluating the Harold White collection, there was a small pasteboard box with fragments of coated glass, their images just exhibiting an urn and a trace of a building. While these were not the famous Printed Page, they were unusual enough to merit testing. Unfortunately, there was no trace of albumen, so they were more likely collodion experiments. However, perhaps there is still reason for hope. Mixed among the thousands of experiments that Talbot did in connection with photographic engraving and photoglyphic engraving are numerous glass plate photographs, the positives that Talbot used to make his plates. Many of these originated with commercial photographers, often as halves of stereo plates, but they have never been systematically examined. It is entirely possible that the Printed Page is hiding in plain sight, thus far not spotted within this mass of material. Maybe some day …
I really cannot let an entire blog pass without showing at least one Talbot photograph. Since at present we don’t know of any surviving images of objects in real motion, I will have to use a bit of poetic license and show off implied motion. Struggling through the first public year of photography in 1839, Talbot was cruelly limited by the exceptionally poor weather. He could make very few camera images. However, his eye began to tune up to the potentials of the new art. In making contact photogenic drawing negatives, he came to realise that they did not have to be artless copies of natural objects. I would like to think that he observed this distribution of spruce needles, probably one that occurred accidentally when the print frame was tilted. In accepting them like this Talbot captured the sense of motion. One wonders if more than a decade later, flashing the rotating piece of printed paper, did it occur to him to possibly try to freeze objects like this falling through the air?
Larry J Schaaf
Questions or Comments? Please feel encouraged to contact Prof Schaaf directly at firstname.lastname@example.org • Mike Murphy, Larry Schaaf, Richard Greffe and Roy Flukinger by Flashlight, Austin, Texas; scan from a color negative, prior to 16 July 1977, private collection. • Thomas Shepherd, The Royal Institution on Albemarle Street, oil painting on canvas, ca. 1838. • WHFT to Michael Faraday, 15 June 1851, Talbot Correspondence Document no. 06429. • WHFT, “Note on instantaneous Photographic Images,” read at the meeting of 19 June 1851, Proceedings of The Royal Society, v. 6 no. 77, p. 82. • Michael Faraday to WHFT, 16 June 1851, Doc. no. 06431. • Talbot’s Head, National Museums of Scotland, T.1936.88. • Static Discharge Wand, Fox Talbot Archive, the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, FT10503. • WHFT, 1833 Diary, Fox Talbot Collection, Manuscripts Department, the British Library, London. • WHFT to John Herschel, 4 March 1833, Doc. no. 02625. • See Charles Wheatstone, “An Account of some Experiments to measure the Velocity of Electricity and the Duration of Electric Light,” Philosophical Transactions, 1834, pp. 583-591. • WHFT, Notebook ‘M’, Fox Talbot Collection, Manuscripts Department, the British Library, London. • “Important Discovery in Photography,” The Literary Gazette, no. 1797, 28 June 1851, p. 443. • WHFT, “On the Production of Instantaneous Photographic Images,” The Athenaeum, no. 1258, 6 December 1851, pp. 1286-1287. Since this was his letter of 27 November 1851, the full transcription is available on the Talbot Correspondence Project. • WHFT to William Parsons, 5 February 1854, Doc. no. 06914. • “Less Than a Second’s Exposure!,” The Photographic News, v. 3 no. 54, 16 September 1859, pp. 16-17. • “Instantaneous Photography,” The British Journal of Photography, v. 12 no. 264, 26 May 1865, pp. 273-274. • “Photography by a Flash,” The British Journal of Photography, v. 14 no. 368, 24 May 1867, p. 245. • “Photography Fifty Years Ago,” Wilson’s Photographic Magazine, v. 41 no. 573, September 1904, p. 396. Sir Thomas Mansel Franklen, “Early Photography,” Cardiff Naturalists’ Society Report and Transactions, v. 57, 1924, p. 39. • John Herschel to WHFT, 25 March 1843, Doc. no. 04778. • WHFT to John Herschel, 29 March 1843, Doc. no. 04784. • John Herschel to WHFT, 31 March 1843, Doc. no. 04788. • John Herschel to WHFT, 6 May 1851, Doc. no. 06418. • Arthur Mason Worthington, The Splash of a Drop (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1895), title page and frontispiece. • WHFT, Cascade of Spruce Needles, photogenic drawing contact negative, likely 1839, Fox Talbot Collection, the British Library, London, LA2070; Schaaf 1653.