Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 12, 2022
William Henry Fox Talbot: At the Origins of Photography
Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia, February 6–April 8, 2018
William Henry Fox Talbot: At the Origins of Photography, installation view, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, February 6–April 8, 2018 (photograph provided by the author)

In the introduction to The Pencil of Nature (1844), British inventor William Henry Fox Talbot tells the origin story of “photogenic drawing.” While honeymooning, he attempted to sketch Lake Como with the aid of a camera lucida. But his “faithless pencil” left only traces of the refracted landscape; the marks were “melancholy to behold.” As if updating Pliny’s tale of art originating with the tracing of a lover’s shadow, Talbot resolved to fix nature’s phantasmagoric images. In 1841, he patented the calotype, the first paper-based chemical photographic process. Unlike its popular French competitor, the metal-based daguerreotype, the calotype process created a paper negative from which positive copies (salted paper prints) could be contact printed. As such, it provided the foundation for film-based photography.

One hundred and fifty of these early photographs were on view in the exhibition William Henry Fox Talbot: At the Origins of Photography at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. Made between 1840 and 1846, the prints are part of the collections of the Science and Media Museum in Bradford, England, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Due to their extreme light sensitivity, it is rare to see calotype prints on display, and indeed many past exhibitions have used facsimiles. But in this first exhibition in Russia dedicated to the inventor, curator Olga Averyanova, head of the Pushkin Museum’s Photographic Art Department, and her collaborator Russell Roberts, Director of the European Center for Documentary Research at Cardiff University, elected to expose the prints for a brief period in order to introduce museumgoers to photography’s infancy as scientific instrument, copying device, and creative practice. 

Four exquisite prints of lace and fabric swatches opened the neatly, if sparsely, installed exhibition (cat. 89, 90). Talbot initially experimented with placing objects directly onto chemically treated paper and exposing them to the sun, a method of cameraless photography that results in a photogram. Transparent and intricate, lace was an ideal material for these early compositions, which have a detailed sharpness that Talbot struggled to attain with a camera. The prints also manage to signify the two poles of the exhibition: Talbot’s understanding of his method as art, and his patenting and monetization of it in the context of what Eric Hobsbawm termed “the age of capital” in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Photography emerged alongside the industrialization of textiles in England, and Talbot saw a potential commercial application for his method in the reproduction of pattern samples.

Talbot recognized that his method could not (yet) compete with the daguerreotype’s detailed studio portraits, and instead sought to demonstrate its strengths: the process was highly portable, and a negative could, in theory, produce unlimited prints. The exhibition’s largest gallery shows his wide range of subjects (and lighting conditions), from landscapes and pastoral scenes to architecture and still lifes. Human subjects, often Talbot’s domestic staff, are framed at a distance, faces blurred by the long exposure. Many of the prints were plates from The Pencil of Nature, and the use of Talbot’s own captions in the wall labels aided the visitor’s understanding of his intentions. The presence of a striking calotype negative (Trees, 1840) emphasized the surreal beauty of the negative and drew attention to the photographic process. However, the display would have been strengthened by including multiple prints (of varying quality) from the same negative. By privileging the singular successful print over the reproducibility—and messiness—of early photography, the curators seemed (like Talbot) anxious to present the medium as fine art.

A highlight of the exhibition was the panoramic diptych of The Reading Establishment, the first commercial photographic printing studio (cat. 23, 24). Working en plain air, nine men pose by standing wood box cameras. The tableau vivant advertises a range of subjects: a lithograph of Anthony van Dyck’s Portrait of Cornelis van der Geest (1620), a seated figure, and a plaster cast of Canova’s The Three Graces (1814–17). The juxtaposition of male portraiture alongside the popular Neoclassical exemplar of feminine beauty—and the commercialized copying of Italian sculptures for export—shows how photography aided the continuation of Western Europe’s prevailing aesthetic regimes.

A print depicting an engraving of Velazquéz’s Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Pink Dress (1844) demonstrated Talbot’s intention to replace earlier methods of copying and circulating manuscripts and artworks. Its presence brought to mind the painter’s far more famous portrait of Margarita Teresa, Las Meninas (1656), in which “representation undertakes to represent itself” (Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, 1970: 17). In Svetlana Alpers’s reading of Las Meninas, the picture simultaneously presents two conflicting orders of pictorial representation in Western art: the Albertian window, through which the artist frames the world, and the paper or canvas as a receiving surface, onto which the world casts its likeness (Svetlana Alpers, “Interpretation without Representation, or, The Viewing of Las Meninas,” 1983: 30–42.) As displayed at the Pushkin Museum, Talbot’s prints reveal that the tension and inseparability between these two modes is fundamental to the photographic medium and shows how its development maps onto that of the modern discipline of art history. In his words, Talbot had only to “cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably (The Pencil of Nature). Yet the insistent frames seen in the prints on display—those of pictures, doors, windows, gothic arches—remind us that the images were always tethered to the photographer’s gaze.

Talbot’s second book, Sun Pictures in Scotland (1846, made with his former valet, Nicolaas Henneman) presented the calotype as a means of individual expression. Few of the book’s original 100 copies survive, but most of the twenty-three plates were hung in the second half of the exhibition; seen together they catalog English romanticism’s tropes: medieval ruins, craggy hills, gothic arches, and a fixation on death. Human subjects are conspicuously absent. England’s industrial revolution fueled popular tourism, and Sun Pictures charts an itinerary for fans of the late Sir Walter Scott, while offering a lesson in how to view the landscapes. As the curators note, Talbot used a black cloth to enunciate the details of a stone effigy of Scott’s deerhound.

The compact full-color catalog beautifully reproduces the prints on view and is the first monographic publication on Talbot available in Russian. Averyanova’s essay, “The Melancholy Inventory of Reality” (Melankholicheskaia inventarizatsiia real’nosti), narrates the development of Talbot’s chemical technique and the differences between the calotype and daguerreotype, particularly in their representation of human subjects. Emphasis on Talbot’s polymathic ingenuity typically eclipses the social and economic context of early photography, but essays by Roberts and Greg Hobson (translated from their earlier publication William Henry Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph, 2016) provide a more nuanced portrait of Talbot. In “Photography and Commerce,” Hobson explains how Talbot’s controversial licensing fees, compounded by inconsistent results and the frequent instability of the images, made opening a studio a high-risk venture—and angered those of his contemporaries who believed photographic technology should be available to all. 

In March 2018 the Pushkin Museum held a two-day conference with researchers from Russia, the UK, and India, which further contextualized Talbot’s work within nineteenth-century representational practices, the natural sciences, and colonialism. Shreya Mukherjee addressed the early widespread use of the calotype in British-occupied India (it was more mobile than the daguerreotype or wet collodion process), underscoring the medium’s role in imperial governance (mapping and documenting) and Orientalist visual culture. Several speakers expanded the discussion to early photography in Russia and the challenges faced when restoring and exhibiting these materials. As Elena Barkhanova, Head of Prints Department at the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg, explained, members of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences were introduced to Talbot’s photogenic drawings as early as May 1840, and by the 1850s numerous photographic methods were in use. In one striking instance, after Alexander II’s 1856 coronation was photographed, the images became the basis for engravings made for his coronation album.

The exhibition’s focus on one decade of Talbot’s work necessarily left out much of Talbot’s scientific research and experimentation with photogravure. His “photomicrographs” could have been shown with English botanist Anna Atkins’s extraordinary cyanotype contact prints of algae, which are referenced in Averyanova’s catalog essay (17). Atkins was in contact with Talbot, and her self-published book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843) preceded The Pencil of Nature by one year, making it the first photographically illustrated book. Hopefully, the Pushkin Museum will mount more exhibitions on early photography. With less curatorial emphasis on Talbot’s singular polymathic ingenuity and the images’ picturesque composition, a future exhibition could better explore photography’s social and historical context, epistemological reverberations (the ascendance of “objectivity”), and, à la Walter Benjamin, the profound challenges the medium posed to the art object.

Olivia Crough
PhD Candidate, Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies, Harvard University