All of us here on the Talbot project are proud to be able to say that there has been a blog dedicated to Talbot and his circle ever since the project officially began on 15 May 2015. The vast majority of almost 200 posts have been written by the project director, Professor Larry Schaaf, but there have been wonderful contributions from many other guest authors. As the close of the Talbot project draws ever nearer, we’ve decided that it is time to reduce the frequency of the blogs so that we can concentrate on the delivery of that what is the heart of the project – the sourcing of images to illustrate Larry’s records. It has been a tough decision, but we hope that you will understand and not think too harshly of us.
To make amends, today we’re offering you a special ‘Two for One’ deal, as this week’s blog is co-authored by Dr Mirjam Brusius and Dr Chitra Ramalingam. Mirjam and Chitra are co-editors (along with Dr Katrina Dean) of the excellent publication, William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography, which bravely focused on Talbot’s investigations into optics, mathematics, botany, archaeology, and classical studies. I say bravely because many texts dedicated to Talbot and his work often list the incredible range of his scientific interests but rarely go into them in detail. That is not the case for our guest authors.
We are proud to have Mirjam Brusius as a member of our Catalogue Raisonné advisory board, but she is also a Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in London and a Fellow of the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. She has published widely on the history of photography as well as the history of collecting and visual culture across modern Europe and the Middle East. Chitra Ramalingam is Assistant Curator of Photography at the Yale Center for British Art and Lecturer in History of Science and Medicine at Yale. Her research and teaching range broadly across topics in science and visual culture with a particular focus on early photography in Britain, and the visual culture of physics
This week, Mirjam and Chitra combine forces once again, to tell us of the doubts expressed by Talbot, as well as his critics, of his photographic process. They also tell us of mythic, yet no longer extant photographs by Talbot, whether he considered them failures, or a mere bagatelle. This editor wonders, oh, if only those images had survived, how might they have changed what we think of Talbot now.
We are accustomed to thinking of Talbot as a visionary prophet of photography’s uses. In the text of his famous serial publication, The Pencil of Nature, the first publication to incorporate photographic images, he outlined many potential applications of photography. From legal evidence, botanical illustration, and facsimiles of documents, to the legitimacy of photography as a medium for fine art, these proposals have long been read as markers of Talbot’s foresight. There is a tendency to tell photography’s early history as a success story, as the confident, triumphant, and inevitable march of a new technology.
Yet as with any new technology, doubt, distrust, dead ends, and failure were persistent features of early photography’s history, particularly from the perspective of its imagined future users. Talbot himself enthusiastically tried to promote new uses for the medium within his wide circle of Victorian savants, in such varied fields as botany and antiquarian scholarship. Even in fields in which he was himself an astute practitioner, he often encountered resistance to the photographic applications he proposed.
Here, drawing on our own research published elsewhere, we explore two areas in which Talbot attempted to actualize some of his early visions for photography’s future, and was met with reluctance or even indifference. Doubts were exposed not so much about photographs’ veracity but about the usefulness or ease with which they could be made and deployed. We pay close attention to two incidents around 1850 at two crucial sites in London: the Royal Institution and the British Museum. Both were increasingly professionalized institutions of Victorian intellectual life where Talbot was an active and confident participant. In both stories, the discrepancy between photographic ideal and practice become apparent and the doubtful attitudes of the scholars and scientists he targeted challenge assumptions about widespread trust in photographic truth in the medium’s early years.
Each of these stories is a photographic history that is not about any specific photographic image. This essay is in fact about photographs that do not exist; about experiments that were one-offs, failures, or unrealized; about photographs that do not survive or were never made in the first place. Writing histories that incorporate the absence of these images is our concern. Their absence is an opportunity to turn our attention instead toward photographic practices—the way photographs were made or were proposed to be made, and the uses to which they were to be put. It is in this world of scholarly and scientific practices where we locate doubt in photography’s early history: in resistance or indifference towards photographic practices, rather than doubt in the photograph itself
We will start by looking at of one of the many photographic firsts attributed to Talbot: the first successful photograph of a rapidly moving object, frozen long in the position it held for only a single instant. We are all familiar with late-nineteenth-century photographs by Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge. Such images became iconic representations of photography’s power to go beyond the limitations of the eye to bring into view individual instants that were otherwise unperceivable. Talbot’s first “instantaneous” photograph of rapid movement, taken decades before these in 1851, was of a very different subject. He attached a piece of paper with text printed on it to a whirling mechanism that spun it around so quickly that it was only visible as a dull, grey blur. He then took a photograph of this spinning disk in a dark room, illuminated by the flash of a single electric spark. He found the printed letters in the resulting photograph to be “just as sharp as if [they] had been motionless.”
The photograph has not survived. Its disappearance is not surprising. As Talbot said himself, it looked exactly as it might have had the disk been perfectly still and the photograph taken in full daylight. Marey and Muybridge’s later images shocked viewers with unimagined, awkwardly arrested poses. Talbot’s intervention into radical instantaneity looked simply like a picture of a printed page, not that different, perhaps, from Talbot’s famous “Facsimile of a printed page” from The Pencil of Nature. The successful photograph, considered on its own, would not have evoked movement or rapidity at all.
Without the photograph, we look instead to the circumstances around its production, to understand how it came to be made, and why it was never repeated. Let us first consider where it was made: the laboratory at the Royal Institution (RI) in London, run by the famous scientist Michael Faraday. The technical elements of Talbot’s experiment—the rotating disk, and devices for generating electric sparks—were already in frequent use there. Most importantly, in early Victorian London’s demonstration-centred culture of scientific display, the RI was an important site for announcing scientific discoveries through public performance and display. Faraday and his frequent collaborator, Charles Wheatstone, had built their scientific reputations through public lectures and performances there in the 1820s and 1830s. Faraday’s exploratory experiments in the RI’s basement laboratory were turned into stable, certain, public knowledge, through demonstrations witnessed and affirmed by a roomful of attentive eyes in the lecture hall upstairs [Footnote 1].
Here’s a report from a London weekly describing a spectacular demonstration Faraday himself performed there before an audience of hundreds in 1846:
A disc divided into colours, seen while revolving, [appears] white. Thus, then, are we cheated by our senses out of the true observations. And as proof, and to remove false impressions, the revolving wheel was exhibited to the audience under temporary lights; a flash of gunpowder partially resolving the white appearance into its elementary colours, and an electric spark, by its momentary existence, showing the colours as though the wheel were at rest [Footnote 2].
It should be obvious from this description that Talbot’s 1851 experiment with spark photography, five years later, was modelled on this demonstration, which was often called “Wheatstone’s disk”. In fact, the rotating device Talbot used to spin the paper disk in Faraday’s laboratory, along with the machine for generating sparks, were most likely the very same ones Faraday had used in the lecture [Footnote 3].
In photographing a spinning disk by the light of an electric spark, Talbot replaced the eyes of Faraday’s audience with a photographic plate [Footnote 4]. Now, he announced, photography could “arrest and embody the most fugitive phenomena which present themselves to the eye.” But this initial confidence soon faltered, for the substitution of photographic plate for collective eye changed the outcome entirely. Wheatstone’s disk proved that the electric spark was instantaneous, but its vivid persuasiveness depended upon the presence of an audience witnessing the frozen disk magically flashing into view, experiencing its brilliant fixity against a backdrop of blurred movement. Now there was no audience—and no thrilling visual experience to inspire excitement. Just a mundane photograph of a bit of text.
Within a few weeks of publishing the experiment, the tone of Talbot’s letters about it shifted quickly from self-assured to plagued with doubt. He was not sure he could produce a bright enough spark; he was not sure he could reproduce the same image again. He was not sure the technique could photograph other, more visually compelling subjects, like a dancer in motion or a spinning top. He tried, and failed, to put together a public lecture in which the photograph would be made before an audience. He thus recognized quite clearly what had been lost in the transformation from live performance to fixed image. By the end of the year he had given up. Wheatstone’s disk was remembered for decades, until the more spectacular revelations of photographic instantaneity (like Marey and Muybridge) eclipsed it in the 1880s; Talbot’s photograph of Wheatstone’s disk was forgotten almost immediately.
Around the same time, after 1851, Talbot gave up taking photographs himself. Antiquarian scholarship was to become Talbot’s hobby-horse. In fact, he devoted half of his life almost entirely to the study of objects from the Ancient Near East and even became a pioneer in the decipherment of cuneiform. However, when he turned more strongly toward his antiquarian and philological interests later in life, which mainly took place in an increasingly professional environment at the British Museum, he found that access was not so easy for an amateur gentleman like him. This could also be one of the reasons why Talbot’s proposal to make the calotype a research tool for facilitating antiquarian research was not readily accepted by the decision makers at the museum.
In 1843 Talbot suggested to the British Museum that photography could be used to study the antique, for example by taking a photographic apparatus on the expedition of the British archaeologist Charles Fellows to Lycia. Talbot heard that Fellows planned on taking “a number of artists, draughtsmen &c. &c.” with him. Talbot thus suggested
“it would be highly interesting to take a view of each remnant of antiquity before removing it, & while it still remains in situ & surrounded with stones & bushes & all the other accompaniments of a wild nature. […].”
Talbot offered to instruct Fellows in the new process but Fellows’ impending departure may have pushed Talbot to rush his experiment, which led to an unsatisfying result. This in turn may have caused the museum to refrain from using the Talbotype. Like the experiment at the Royal Institution, there is no image to show; in fact, we do not know if any photographic specimens deriving from Talbot’s experiment in 1843 ever existed or if they simply got lost; perhaps because they were not considered worth keeping. The incident was no exception. The German Egyptologist Lepsius, for example, first considered photography but then abandoned the idea [Footnote 5]. The drawings from his excavations set standards for the visualisation in the field of Egyptology; a medium that was never replaced by other techniques like photography.
By the 1850s Talbot sought new challenges and became particularly interested in the objects excavated by the adventurous British explorer and antiquarian Austen Henry Layard between 1845 and 1851 in Nimrud and brought to the British Museum. When Talbot turned toward Assyriology after 1850, he strongly urged that photography be used in service of decipherment. But neither Talbot’s attempt to become a ‘professional’ in these emerging areas of study, nor the application of photography itself, were self-evidently likely to succeed. Talbot was surely recognized as the inventor of photography, but this certainly does not seem to have entailed the right of access to photographs made at the British Museum. In the early 1850s, a project to photograph cuneiform inscriptions in the British Museum’s collections finally began with Roger Fenton’s short-term employment as the Museum’s photographer. The intention was to promote the progress of decipherment by making the fragile tablets carrying the inscriptions more mobile.
By this time Talbot had stopped taking photographs himself. His interest was in using Fenton’s images in order to decipher the cuneiform tablets that had been photographed [Footnote 6]. But Talbot found his access to these photographs impeded by the museum’s highly controlled and hierarchical systems for distributing Assyriological information. In fact, it took 9 years until he received the photographs whose production he had himself initiated. In the following years the relationship between the British Museum, photography and Talbot remained vexed. The museum’s adoption of photography, already delayed, partial, and irregular, also came to an abrupt temporary end. Fenton’s employment as museum’s photographer was halted for financial reasons after only a few years.
Talbot’s proposals to use photography as a tool both in the field and in the museum in these early years produced a reaction ambiguously mixing enthusiasm, distrust, and indifference, rather than explicit criticism or opposition, in these early years. When Talbot approached photography in the role of a user rather than as its inventor and promoter, even his own attitude towards the utility of photography was muted. The interplay of trust and distrust between photography and its users endured even twenty years later, in 1873, when Talbot, at the age of 73, acknowledged the shortcomings of the medium himself. The context was the publication of the translation of an important cuneiform tablet, thought to be related to the Biblical deluge. Talbot, eager to decipher it, complained that he had “only seen photographs”. In other words, Talbot reckoned photographs a useful medium, but acknowledged that it could never serve as autonomous evidence. Instead, it remained a medium of transit; simply a complementary tool that was of no use without other form of visualization.
Mirjam Brusius and Chitra Ramalingam
- For Faraday’s epistemology of performance see David Gooding, “‘In Nature’s School’: Faraday as an Experimentalist,” in Faraday Rediscovered: Essays on the Life and Work of Michael Faraday, 1791-1867, ed. David Gooding and Frank A. J. L. James (New York: Stockton Press, 1985), 104–35.
- “Royal Institution,” Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Science and Art, no. 1525 (April 11, 1846). pp. 340–41.
- Charles Wheatstone came up with this apparatus and collaborated with Faraday to develop it in to a large-scale performance demonstration. Talbot witnessed this demonstration at least once, in 1840, and he had experimented with similar optical illusions on his own for years. See Chitra Ramalingam, “‘The Most Transitory of Things’: Talbot and the Science of Instantaneous Vision” in Brusius, Dean, and Ramalingam, (eds): William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond photography, New Haven; London: Yale University Press (2013). For more on Faraday, Wheatstone, and their linked study of electrical instantaneity and visual persistence through devices and demonstrations like this, along with Talbot’s ongoing interest and participation in this work, see chapters 1-3 of Chitra Ramalingam, To See a Spark: Experiment and visual experience in Victorian Science (forthcoming, Yale University Press).
- Talbot used one of his new, highly sensitive “Amphitype” glass plates in this experiment, a technique that he would soon abandon. William Henry Fox Talbot, “On the Production of Instantaneous Photographic Images,” Athenaeum, no. 1258 (December 6, 1851): 1286–87.
- See Brusius, Mirjam: Fotografie und museales Wissen: William Henry Fox Talbot, das Altertum und die Absenz der Fotografie. Berlin: De Gruyter 2015, pp. 108-109.
- Brusius, Mirjam: From photographic science to scientific photography: Talbot, decipherment and the application of photography at the British Museum around 1850. In: Brusius, M.; Dean, K.; Ramalingam, C. (eds): William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond photography, New Haven; London: Yale University Press 2013.
• Questions or Comments? Dr Brusius and Dr Ramalingam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com • Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793-1864, ’The Royal Institution’, via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain], • The British Museum c. 1850-1880, stereo photograph by an unknown photographer, RP-F-F04988, Rijksmuseum • Talbot to Faraday, 15 June 15 1851, Doc. No. 6429, The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot (Original: Royal Institution, London). • Eadweard J. Muybridge, ‘Running (Galloping)’ print, iron salt process, 1888, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 85.XO.362.47 • WHFT, ’IX. Facsimile of an Old Printed Page, salt print from a calotype negative, National Museum of Science and Media, Bradford, 1937-1283/5, Schaaf 851 • William Henry Fox Talbot, “Important Experiment at the Royal Institution,” Athenaeum, no. 1235 (June 28, 1851): 688. • Ramalingam, “‘The Most Transitory of Things’: Talbot and the Science of Instantaneous Vision,” 262–64. • C. Fellows to WHFT, 11 April 1843, Doc. No. 04799 • C. Fellows to WHFT, 1 August 1843, Doc. No. 6436, (Original: British Museum Archives, London) • Brusius, Mirjam: Inscriptions in a Double Sense: An Early Scientific Photograph of Script. In: Nuncius: Journal of the History of Science 24 (2009). pp. 367–92. • Lepsius Notizenbuch I, 12° ÄM. Inv.nr. 84 (pp. 41, 54, 84, 102, 104, 106, 108), Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Inv. Nr. 84, currently item on loan at „Archiv des Akademienvorhaben Altägyptisches Wörterbuch an der Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften“, Transcription: Elke Freier. See also Brusius, Mirjam: Fotografie und museales Wissen: William Henry Fox Talbot, das Altertum und die Absenz der Fotografie. Berlin: De Gruyter 2015, pp. 108-109. • Klamm, Stefanie: Bilder im Wandel. Der Berliner Archäologe Reinhard Kekulé von Stradonitz und die Konkurrenz von Zeichnung und Fotografie. In: Jahrbuch der Berlin Museen 2007. pp. 115-126. • Robert Fenton, Assyrian Cuneiform clay tablet, salt print from a calotype negative, National Museum of Science and Media, Bradford, 1937-4117, Schaaf 3623 • WHFT to Samuel Birch, 27 February 1873, Doc. No. 9956, see also Brusius, Mirjam: Fotografie und museales Wissen: William Henry Fox Talbot, das Altertum und die Absenz der Fotografie. Berlin: De Gruyter 2015, pp. 184-188.