An occasional series of tasty morsels that cross my desk





More on Talbot’s equipment

Last week Roger Watson’s guest blog explored the cameras that Talbot used, the first blog in what I hope becomes a series on the physical underpinnings of Talbot’s photographs.  In looking at some old snapshots that I had taken in the Science Museum years ago I recently came across

Sadly for historians, such packets were emptied out years ago and I doubt that we will ever have the forensic tools to determine exactly which negatives were enclosed.  The initials are those of David Harrison, a seemingly clever young man who played a peripheral and somewhat ill-defined role in Nicolaas Henneman’s Regent Street studio (something that must be covered in a future blog but for now you can touch on this).  Talbot had loaned many negatives to Henneman & Malone and some of those retrieved eventually went into the Lacock Abbey archives.  But this empty envelope proved not empty of promise, for it led me back to Harrison’s correspondence with Talbot and particularly to a letter he wrote on 21 August 1848.  Although he confessed that “I have never had the use of a Camera” he had some interesting insights on them and “would have tried it practically” if he had had the opportunity.  His first thought was about the stereo photographs that Henneman was beginning to experiment with, shifting the viewpoint of a single camera to produce the two views.  ”

Having seen several double Views completely spoiled through having to move the camera after taking the first Picture, I beg leave to submit to your superior Judgement, a plan by which I think that evil is to be remedied.

It consists simply of making the top of the stand semicircular, having at the Centre a point shifting up and down, so as to be adjusted to any Camera round which, place a Collar to move steadily round with an arm to project out so as to clear the tube containing the Lens &c as the Annexed sketch will show, (a) the Camera (b) the stand (c) the point made to shift up and down (d) the arm revolving round the point (e) another arm shifting up and down and fixed by means of the screw (g), (f) the lens.

Harrison also considered another problem, the ‘pyramidal effect’ caused by pointing the camera up to take in the tops of buildings.  Henry had been roundly chastised for this, and Harrison suggested that,

I have also been thinking a camera might be constructed to do away with the leaning of objects such as streets and Building &c which so often spoils the beautiful effect which otherwise the picture would present.

So, as Roger continues his search for Talbot’s photographic apparatus, the name of David Harrison should be borne in mind.

The value of minute observation

One of my regular correspondents is Mark Katzman, who recently acquired a fine example of Talbot’s experiments with photogravure.  Mark asked if there was any way to date this particular example – I was on the road at the time but it was apparent from the tonal structure of his image that it belonged to the 1858 photoglyphic engraving family rather than the 1852 photographic engraving one.  That was promising, for there exists a more clear set of research notes associated with the later work.  I asked him to have a very close look at periphery of the plate edges, looking for a hairline number that had been scratched into the plate with a diamond.

Mark found such a number, printed in reverse of course, but by greatly magnifying it determined that the number was ‘443’.  Once home, I was able to dig out my copy of Talbot’s research notes and sure enough:

Made in 1860, experiment number 443 was on a steel plate.  He recorded

443. Port[rait] of girl 3’ [3 minutes exposure] bright [light]. Gel[atin coating]  thin – heat but no resin. Etched with 1 and then 2 [specific solutions] a long time. Engraving feels rough as if it w[oul]d print (More brilliant than the 2 next, owing to the ­thin gel[atin], & no resin.

Thus, Mark acquired a print from a very successful experimental plate.  We don’t always have such direct pointers as an experiment number, but this again emphasises the opportunity to learn more about Talbot’s photographs through the written word.

The courage of the Rev George Bridges

I recently renewed some correspondence with Professor David Pyle, someone who came to my attention when he curated a fascinating exhibition in the Weston Library of the Bodleian in 2016 titled Volcanoes: Encounters through the Ages.

I must admit that the artwork that struck me the most was pre-photographic, my favourite Mount Etna churning its way up through an engraving, Vesuvius perhaps appropriately depicted more romantically, rounded out by the thoroughly scientific renderings by Alexander von Humboldt.  In the course of his study, Professor Pyle had noticed mention of some views of Mt Etna taken by Lady Elisabeth’s friend, the Rev George Bridges (and yes, I recall a previous promise to do a full blog on him some day).  One of the most interesting of these images is one that Bridges explained in a 25 October 1846 letter to Talbot.

You can just make out the camera on its stand in the detail.  In this letter (mostly, and typically, seeking Henry’s advice on technical matters), Bridges told Talbot that

Upon the black lava country of Etna …  No 66 & 67 were taken under peculiar circumstances  … both from the bottom of the great Crater. The first when I had just planted the instrument there upon the very edge of the fiery gulph which descends thence, – at the moment an explosion took place – I ran off & came back when it had passed, 3½’ had elapsed – & No 66 – stood depicted – No 67 I caught between the explosions, & shews the very mouth of that tremendous abyss – thus

Having been up Etna several times myself, witnessing the frequent activity of its grumblings, I cannot imagine carrying a large wooden camera up to the edge, setting up a tripod over the precipice and then dashing back and forth between eruptions!

Seeing the unknown

Finally, It has been a rich week in mind-blowing revelations.  Happily skipping over those in the political world, who could have imagined a red sports car being projected into space, piloted by a safety mannequin listening to David Bowie on the stereo?  But what captured my imagination even more was the startling discovery of more than 60,000 Mayan structures that had been hidden under the dense jungle cover of northern Guatemala. Using LiDar – a technique that combines GPS and pulsed laser light – scientists literally saw through the trees to the sprawling and complex ruins abandoned by a pre-Columbian civilization.

Seeing this, I immediately wanted to contact our Board Member, Dr Mike Ware, to see if he could set up a nano-LiDar to peer underneath the surface of some of Talbot’s more faded photographs.  We know that chemical traces are still there in the faintest of these, but we just cannot see them.

Some readers may recall an earlier blog (the sole one thus far based on the eyeballs of shrimp) in which Talbot’s speculations in connection with his Scene in a Library explored extensions of vision.

When a ray of solar light is refracted by a prism and thrown upon a screen, it forms there the very beautiful coloured band known by the name of the solar spectrum. Experimenters have found … certain invisible rays which lied beyond the violet, and whose existence is only revealed to us by this action which they exert. Now, I would propose to separate these invisible rays from the rest …  If there were a number of persons in the room, no one would see the other: and yet nevertheless … the eye of the camera would see plainly where the human eye would find nothing but darkness.

So while forensic science may never be able to pinpoint the five negatives that David Harrison stuffed into the envelope in 1848, I think that there is every hope that novel approaches conceptually parallel to LiDar may at some point enable us to “to hand down to future ages a picture of the sunshine of yesterday.”

Larry J Schaaf


• Questions or Comments? Please contact Prof Schaaf directly at larry.schaaf@bodleian.ox.ac.uk   •  The negative packet is amongst the uncatalogued manuscripts in the Talbot Collection at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford.  •  David Harrison to WHFT, 21 August 1848, Talbot Correspondence Project Document no. 06166. •   WHFT, 443. Portrait of a Girl, print from an experimental  photoglyphic engraving plate, 26 September 1860, Mark Katzman Collection.  •  WHFT’s experimental notes, uncatalogued manuscripts, Talbot Collection, NSMeM, Bradford. • David M. Pyle’s 2017 companion book, Volcanoes:  Encounters through the Ages, is available from The Bodleian Bookshop and in the US from The University of Chicago Press.   • Rev George Bridges to WHFT, 25 October 1846, Doc. no. 05759.  • Rev George Bridges, 67. The gulph of fire at bottom of Crater – Etna. taken between the explosions, calotype negative and digital print, October 1846, NSMeM, Bradford, 1937-2180; Schaaf 3328.  •   Hidden Mayan Structures in Guatemala, 2018, © Canuto & Auld-Thomas and The National Geographic Society. • WHFT, A Scene in a Library, salted paper print from a calotype negative, prior to 22 March 1844, same as plate VIII in The Pencil of Nature, No. 2, published, 29 January 1845, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005.100.172; Schaaf 18. •  The ‘sunshine of yesterday’ quote is from a review of The Pencil of Nature in the Athenæum, no. 904, 22 February 1845, p. 202.