Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 6, 2017
Vered Maimon Singular Images, Failed Copies: William Henry Fox Talbot and the Early Photograph Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 269 pp.; 43 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (9780816694723)

In Singular Images, Failed Copies, Vered Maimon investigates William Henry Fox Talbot and his connection with early photography. After H. J. P. Arnold’s, Gail Buckland’s, and Larry Schaaf’s monographic works and studies on Talbot—first published in the 1970s and making essential original sources accessible—a renewed interest in Talbot and early photography has occurred. On the one hand, this could be linked to Schaaf’s online research project on Talbot’s correspondence ( or more recently his work on a catalogue raisonné. Also, there are newly acquired Talbot records such as photographs, notebooks, and ephemera purchased in 2006 by the British Library, as well as Talbot’s personal archive acquired by the Bodleian Library in 2014. On the other hand, the presumed rediscovery of a “first” photograph in 2008 and its attribution to Thomas Wedgwood once again raises important questions concerning the “beginning” or “origin” of photography. Criticism therefore challenges not only the birth of photography in 1839 and the definition of photography as such, but also narratives concerning photo-historiographical writing. Consequently, contexts, places, and actors that have been included or left out of photography history are being reconsidered through a meta-historical analysis (see Tanya Sheehan and Andrés Mario Zervigón, eds., Photography and Its Origins, New York: Routledge, 2015).

With the help of postmodern critical theory, Maimon also questions established genealogies and canonical histories of photography and their description of a teleology deriving directly from the camera obscura. In doing so she scrutinizes the concept of photographic “truth” or “verisimilitude” by locating photography in the hitherto unexplored framework of British empiricism. Through this, she envisages photography as a medium and an epistemological figure, which entered different and mostly unstable fields of knowledge in Victorian England. Her main argument concentrates on the “inductive” method of science—a term Talbot used in his writings—to point toward the inseparability of scientific investigation, metaphysics, and religion. Unlike previous Talbot scholars, Maimon’s concern in Singular Images, Failed Copies is not to write another monograph, but to focus on various discourses and scientific milieus of the time, which directly or indirectly influenced Talbot. This interdisciplinary broadening of the research perspective can be related to the scholarly efforts of Geoffrey Batchen and more recently of Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean, and Chitra Ramalingam, who have organized a symposium on Talbot the polymath (see Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean, and Chitra Ramalingam, eds., William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography, New Haven and London: Yale Center for British Art and Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2013) (click here for review). Generally, Maimon’s research focus is chosen wisely, yet due to its wide range of material, she occasionally draws the reader away from the main focus of the book.

Maimon’s main achievement is to identify the conception of photography as part of an “epistemological shift” (ix) in the 1830s and 1840s, which equally took part in natural philosophy, science, and aesthetics. Singular Images, Failed Copies, as the title itself indicates, questions the often indeterminately used specification of photographs as “mechanical copies”—a term that became prominent in the studies of Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison on scientific objectivity. As Maimon—following Steve Edwards—postulates, Talbot’s famous argumentation that “it is not the artist who makes the picture, but the picture which makes itself” (xviii) illustrates nature’s potential to act in self-agency, as well as the idea of automatization in the age of industrialization. Behind this stands the utopia of auto-genesis and the ideal of factories freed from manual work. Famous theorists who need to be mentioned in this regard are Adam Smith and Andrew Ure, on whom Maimon touches briefly. As a major source of influence on Talbot’s conception of photogenic drawing as a kind of copying system based on deskilling, she identifies Charles Babbage’s work “On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures” (1832). However, she does not specify any concrete relations between this work and Talbot’s. Because of the manual production and unpredictability in the formal appearance of early photography, Maimon makes clear that soon after Talbot’s invention photographs were no longer conceived as “mechanical copies.” Maimon argues that this is also confirmed by the use of the term “Art” in Talbot’s writings, which refers to craft or deskilled labor, and not to artistic production. Based on this thesis, Maimon proposes to interpret early photographs as “failed copies,” or as Gilles Deleuze put it, as simulacrum—“through which nature repeats more than resembles or traces” (xix).

Maimon’s book is divided into two parts, “British Science and the Conception of Photography” and “Botanical Images and Historical Documents: The First Applications of Photography,” each consisting of two subsections. In the first chapter, she focuses on one paragraph of Talbot’s “Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing” published in 1839, in which the English scientist describes his invention for the first time. However, Maimon omits an in-depth characterization of the publication as such, its content, and the different applications of camera-based and camera-less photography mentioned in it. Most remarkable to the reader is her analysis of Talbot’s statement to have found “new proof” of the value of the inductive method of science. Her reading of this passage focuses on photogenic drawing as an “epistemological figure” that provides evidence for the validity of the inductive method—a method that is based on generalization and elimination. She moves forward by reading induction as a process of reasoning, as exemplified in John Herschel’s, Thomas Reid’s, William Whewell’s, and Babbage’s writings, to underline the status of the photograph as object of research in controversial forms of scientific practice. This is done in a wide-reaching way that incorporates the philosophical as well as methodological works of Scottish common sense philosophy and empiricism. However, throughout her fundamental and detailed analysis of the scientific milieu, the reader will quite often miss the link to Talbot—the main topic of the book. In addition, she frequently employs unnecessarily long quotations.

In chapter 2, Maimon concentrates on Talbot’s book The Pencil of Nature (1844–46), and in particular on his introductory account. In this report Talbot describes the process of his invention as an “idea” that occurred to him in considering how to fix the images of the camera obscura. Centering on the topic of “genius” and “imagination,” Maimon links Talbot’s text to Immanuel Kant’s as well as Whewell’s writings, and shows how these concepts influenced English Romanticism, notably the aesthetic theories of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This leads her to an instructive and in-depth discussion of the “picturesque” as an aesthetic category, which, according to Maimon, shaped the conceptualization and thinking of photogenic drawing as picture and image. Maimon closes the chapter by rightly pointing to the incongruity of adding the history of photography to the history of the camera obscura given its different technical, conceptual, and formal qualities, arguing instead for establishing a discursive genealogy for early photography and for its unstable determination as an “image without a concept” (110).

In chapter 3, Maimon focuses on the specificity of early photography in contrast to camera obscura images by examining reviews and critics of the new medium. Through this analysis she claims a difference between the two types of “images”: whereas the camera obscura projects its ephemeral images instantaneously, photography, according to Maimon, instead introduces time into its process of formation. Neglected in this argumentation is an analysis of the camera obscura as a drawing device. In addition, an explanation of the technical differences and resemblances between early photographic cameras and the camera obscura would have been useful. Although Maimon discusses Talbot’s photographic processes, she generally speaks about “early photography” or “photography,” and thereby unifies, in the case of Talbot, two different sets of techniques: camera-less and camera-based photography. But, as she investigates terms like “copy,” “impression,” and “index” in relation to “early photography,” camera-less as well as camera-based photography—with their own technical, historical, and contextual background—require separate explorations. Through this differentiation it could be clearly shown that Talbot—relying on silver-nitrate experiments of the eighteenth century—made his first pictures around 1834 without a camera through direct contact printing. In doing so he referred conceptually and technically to nature printing and printing techniques in general, which made him describe his pictures as “impressions.” To those photogenic drawings Talbot ascribed a “universal use.”

Therefore, the introduction of the camera into the history of photography can be understood as a later addition to various photographic techniques; its birth year 1839, in turn, might be seen as a contingent assertion. And although Maimon favors an anti-teleological and non-linear history of photography, her utilization of Batchen’s expression “proto-photography” for photographs dating before 1839 needs critical reconsideration. Instead, to open up the narrow term “photography” (which is generally connected to camera-based photographs), Rosalind Krauss’s concept of “the photographic,” for instance, might have allowed for the encompassing of a broader spectrum of photographic techniques. Maimon concludes the third chapter by arguing that early photographs should be regarded not as mechanical, or natural copies, but as failed copies. Through this she points out the unpredictability in Talbot’s early photographic processes, naming the specific chemical, optical, and material production requirements at fault. This instructive analysis underlines the singularity of the images and their status as simulacrum (following Deleuze). In chapter 4, Maimon concentrates on Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, the documentary role of the photographs included, and the philological and classical studies informing them. She also compares it to possible literary influences—among them Thomas Babington Macaulay and Sir Walter Scott.

The book offers an extensive index; a bibliography is missing, however. The rather small illustrations are all in black and white, whereby any color-based analysis is all but impossible. Overall, Singular Images, Failed Copies is an impressive and well-researched study, which engages the philosophical and scientific milieu informing Talbot’s early photography. It is highly recommended to Talbot scholars.

Katharina Steidl
Post-Doc, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna