Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 19, 2014
Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean, and Chitra Ramalingam, eds. William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography Studies in British Art, 23.. New Haven and London: Yale Center for British Art and Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2013. 320 pp.; 109 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300179347)

William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography attempts to resituate the early history of photography and one of its most important innovators, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877), in the context of mid-Victorian science. Developed from a conference held in June 2010 at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cambridge, this collection of essays, as described in the introduction, examines the relationship of the discovery of photography to the “new [scientific] methods of inscription, recording, classification, visual display, collection, and above all, reproduction” (9–10). Though art historians tend to think of Talbot first and foremost as one of the inventors of photography, this volume makes apparent that his photographic experiments were more often than not subordinate to his other interests; Talbot held high hopes for photography’s utilization in his preferred fields of study, rather than the other way around.

Histories of photography from the 1870s onward tend to emphasize photography’s ready application in anthropology, criminology, and ethnography due to its capacity for “objective” observation and documentation. By contrast, William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography focuses on an earlier period in the development of photography, and thus tells a much different story. It is striking that natural historians, archaeologists, and even museum archivists overwhelmingly resisted the adoption of the new medium. In her essay “Talbot’s First Lens: Botanical Vision as an Exact Science,” Anne Secord provides an especially interesting discussion of the persistence of drawing by botanists, firstly because drawing was believed to help develop one’s powers of observation, and secondly because it allowed for the clarification of salient features according to which a plant could be classified. Hence, photography’s “inability to distinguish between the essential and the nonessential” (59) was seen by many mid-nineteenth-century botanists to be an insurmountable drawback.

Additionally, as noted by Eleanor Robson in her discussion of the cuneiform “decipherment event” of 1857—that is, Talbot’s use of comparative etymology to translate cuneiform, or Assyriological script, which led to widespread acceptance that it could, in fact, be read—even though Talbot pushed for the use of photography in the field of Assyriology, he himself found photographs “insufficient to work from” (204). One might assume that photography would have been embraced by mid-Victorian scientists due to its “documentary” quality, yet the essays in this volume reveal that the new medium was, in many cases, ignored, avoided, even criticized due to the illegibility of early photographs, the unreliability of photographic processes, and the inability of photography to select, highlight, and generalize.

Each essay takes as its focus one of Talbot’s many related pursuits, in most cases pursuits broadly conceived as “scientific”: botany, mathematics, antiquarianism, and more. The book’s introduction, jointly written by Mirjam Brusius and Chitra Ramalingam, does an especially good job of articulating the broader claims of the volume and contextualizing the essays that follow. The contributors to the volume, as Brusius and Ramalingam state, come from a variety of different disciplines, brought together with the aim of addressing Talbot’s previously unexamined endeavors in fields “beyond photography.” A project such as this no doubt requires a great breadth of scholarly expertise in order to cover the broad range of activities discussed.

The editors highlight the fact that this book is also the product of the recent accessibility of Talbot’s archival collections, in particular his many notebooks, of which only a small number deal directly with his photographic experiments. Indeed, the opening up of the Talbot archive allows for the reframing of his career beyond merely distinguishing between his photographic and non-photographic pursuits. This centrality of the archive is evident in the choice of illustrations, which include many photographs of pages from Talbot’s notebooks. (One especially fascinating illustration, a photograph by Roger Fenton of a cuneiform tablet, overwritten in pencil with the words in Latin script, neatly brings together the photographic and handwritten in the context of Talbot’s passion for deciphering ancient scripts.) Admittedly, a photograph of a handwritten page of notes will never fully convey the experience of physically encountering the object in the British Library—in the same way that a reproduction of a painting will never compare to encountering it “in the flesh.” Yet the inclusion of pictures of Talbot’s notebooks as objects worthy of scrutiny on par with photographs illustrates one of the primary claims of this volume: namely, that notebooks are as important as photographs for understanding Talbot’s interests specifically and “the materiality of Victorian scientific and intellectual life” more generally (7).

The essays focus on the folios, specimens, photographs, notes, letters, and articles contained within the Talbot archive, with co-editor Katrina Dean offering an essay about the history of the Talbot archive and its relationship to Talbot’s ancestral home, Lacock Abbey, which is where many of Talbot’s experiments took place. As a result, the essays are impressive in their evident archival labor but narrow (sometimes even microscopic) in focus. One exception is Vered Maimon’s contribution, “Talbot’s Art of Discovery,” which is more theoretical in approach, drawing on such thinkers as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Carol Armstrong to consider the photograph as natural phenomenon and discovered object (145).

The book is divided into three sections: “Models for Investigation,” “Invention and Discovery,” and “Institutions and Networks.” In section 1, Secord discusses Talbot’s study of botany, focusing in particular on mosses; June Barrow-Green examines Talbot’s mathematical education and subsequent publications; and Graham Smith describes Talbot’s enjoyment of Sir Walter Scott’s novels and verses, and their impact on Talbot’s first book, written in 1829, Legendary Tales, in Verse and Prose. The diversity of subjects addressed in this section reveals the breadth of Talbot’s interests.

In section 2, Talbot’s “invention” of photography is considered. Herta Wolf examines the emergence in early writings about photography of the trope of photography as “Nature as a drawing mistress,” which emphasized photography’s apparent closeness or similarity to nature. Maimond discusses Talbot’s dramatization of the “specific ‘historical’ moment” of photography’s discovery during a vacation in 1833 by Lake Como, critically engaging with the written contents of Talbot’s first photographic book, The Pencil of Nature (1844). Finally, Larry J. Schaaf describes Talbot’s continued experimentation with photogravure or “photographic engraving”—a fixation that far exceeded Talbot’s experimentation with silver-based photography.

Section 3 features essays by Robson and Brusius, who deal with Talbot’s efforts in the decipherment of cuneiform script, with Brusius examining why photography was not initially taken up by the British Museum at a time when the institution and its collection was in a process of transition. Ramalingam writes about Talbot’s experimentation with photographic instantaneity or the capturing of rapidly moving objects, and how these discoveries were overshadowed by the public performances of optical illusions and innovative image machines by the experimental philosopher Michael Faraday and his collaborator Charles Wheatstone. The volume culminates with a commentary by Simon Schaffer, which, like the introduction, is especially helpful in expanding the horizons of the volume and returning the reader to its more ambitious claims. Schaffer also does the important work of filling in some of the gaps left open by the essays by providing a more overarching discussion of the place of science within the new disciplinary orders and Talbot’s involvement in various patent disputes.

In order to address the fluid nature of mid-Victorian science and photography’s uneasy place within it, the authors move away from iconographical readings of the photographs themselves. One outcome is that limited attention is paid to the actual photographs—the exception again being Maimon’s essay which, at one point, looks closely at some of Talbot’s botanical images. As the volume makes clear, photography was not Talbot’s principal interest. Nonetheless, it is my hope that future studies will draw on the historical context provided by the present monograph to develop new readings of the rich visual material, readings that, in the words of Schaffer, do “justice to the manuscript record” (272).

But there is another consequence of looking “beyond photography” in a book about the inventor of photography: it becomes increasingly clear that, aside from his contribution to photographic science, Talbot was remarkably unexceptional. Robson, writing about Talbot the Assyriologist, professes that Talbot was neither great nor “a complete incompetent” (193). In her discussion of botanical drawing versus photography, Secord makes the point that Talbot was especially keen for the adoption of photography in recording nature’s forms and details because he was a “notoriously poor artist” (61). Brusius states that “Talbot was an expert in photography, but he was certainly not so in the fields he targeted as potential platforms for its application” (239). Finally, Schaffer observes that “the contributors to this new volume are not, as a whole, especially impressed by Talbot’s disciplinary distinction” (271).

On the one hand, Talbot’s limited success in the different intellectual fields in which he dabbled helps to problematize the very notion of the scientific “genius.” On the other hand, I found myself wishing that the subject was someone who had traveled more (as stated in the introduction, he “traveled widely in Europe but never to remote places such as Mesopotamia” (9)), achieved more, or simply led a more interesting life—like that other Victorian gentleman of science, Charles Darwin. In fact, at various points mention is made of remarkable characters who stand out in contrast to Talbot, foremost among them being the head of the Royal Institution, Faraday. (It must be noted that Faraday came from humbler beginnings than Talbot, and I wonder if this is part of the reason why he is a more compelling figure.) Hence, as an account of the development of photography in relation to scientific observation and experimentation at a time when the professionalism of the scientific disciplines was starting to crystallize, William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography makes a significant contribution. But by focusing on Talbot in order to do so, this volume throws up some important questions about how and why we write biographies of “great men of science,” questions that go beyond photography and far beyond William Henry Fox Talbot.

Keren Rosa Hammerschlag
Postdoctoral Research Assistant Professor, Georgetown University