Fox Talbot at MediaSpace

Fox Talbot: The Dawn of the Photograph at MediaSpace in the Science Museum is a display of prints by William Fox Talbot and his contemporaries, mostly from the 1840s. Although apparently comprehensive (at least in terms of FT’s own output) it is surprisingly unsatisfying.

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We start with copies of FT’s early experiments, including the famous lattice windows at Lacock Abbey and some of his ‘photogenic drawings’. Most of these are still-lifes or architectural details, allowing long exposure times. An 1840 study of a statue of Diogenes in the Great Hall at Lacock seems surprisingly modern with its subject lit by a patch of window light amid dark shadows.

It is not clear how much detail has been lost from these images due to age and reproduction, but there is a loss of detail at both ends of the dynamic range and it is possible to make out the grain of the paper negatives. The newer images, represented by original salt prints are considerably better.

There are two pull-quotes displayed on the walls of the second gallery

… what man may hereafter do, now that Dame Nature has become his drawing mistress, it is impossible to predict (Faraday, 1839)

and in rather Blackadder-ish tones:

I always felt sure you would perfect your process til they equalled or surpassed Daguerre’s but this is really magical. Surely you deal with the naughty one (Herschel, 1841)

This gallery displays contemporary processes, particularly the daguerrotype. Ironically, this includes a daguerrotype of Fox Talbot himself. It is worth viewing a daguerrotype ‘in the flesh’; they are stunningly sharp but the metallic surface gives odd reflections from some angles. Of course, the daguerrotype was a technological dead-end but it was a serious rival to FT’s calotype process, particularly among American portraitists.

The next two galleries display FT’s calotypes from the period when the process had become ‘mature’. The exhibits are mainly original salt prints, sepia in tone with a good tonal range and very sharp – as we would expect from a contact-printing process. They are very much ‘record’ photographs (pre-dating the Pictorialist movement), mainly Scottish views and the architecture of Oxford. It must be said that the main interest is that these photographs were made at all, rather than their content and I wonder whether we need to see so many of them.

Here and in the final gallery, showing work by FT’s contemporaries, there are some treasures (Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes of British algae for instance) and it is interesting to see calotype negatives with the skies ‘inked-in’ so that they will print as dead white, a ‘look’ very foreign to modern landscape photographers.

So, why do I find the overall exhibition unsatisfying? As a photographer with a scientific interest, I believe there is a wasted opportunity. This is the Science Museum after all, so where are the displays showing the detail of the calotype process and comparing it with its rivals, the contemporary daguerrotype and the later wet-collodion glass plates? In my view, it would have been a better use of one of the middle galleries.

Unlike later photographers working with a mature technology, the importance of FT, Daguerre and other pioneers has at least as much to do with the process as with the images they produced. Although the daguerrotype and the calotype are seen as rivals in history books, the daguerrotype was a dead-end; (a) as a direct-positive process, it was not possible to make multiple copies, (b) it was expensive and (c) it compromised the health of its practitioners breathing mercury vapours.  The calotype was safer, cheaper and reproducible. By introducing a negative-positive process to photographic printing it made possible  the postcard, the carte-de-visit and the family album, all of which have social implications beyond the mere taking of a photograph. I would like to have been shown more.

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