Yale collections offer lens into the history of photography

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William Henry Fox Talbot, “A Scene in a Library” (plate VIII) from “The Pencil of Nature,” 1844–1846, salt print from paper negative, Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of George Hopper Fitch, B.A. 1932, 1989.12.13

The history of photography has never followed a straight continuum. Since before the time of Vermeer, artists and scientists have labored at different times and in different locations around the globe in the quest to “capture images,” from the earliest camera obscura to the ultraviolet imaging spectrometer used by NASA today.

One major innovation in the medium took place 175 years ago when William Henry Fox Talbot, an English scientist and leading pioneer of photography, invented the calotype process. Talbot recounted his breakthrough in “The Pencil of Nature” (1844–1846), one of several rare books, photographs, and instruments related to the history of photography in Yale collections.

According to Talbot, he was visiting Lake Como in Italy in 1833 with his wife, Constance, a talented artist. As the couple sat drawing by the picturesque shores, Talbot lamented his own inability to capture the scene in front of him. “How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves … upon the paper!” he wrote.

Back in England the following year, Talbot began experimenting with various solutions of silver nitrate — which he knew was sensitive to sunlight — and salts. After several failed attempts, he discovered that he could moisten a sheet of paper with a weak solution of salt, dry the paper, and then brush it with silver nitrate. He then placed a flat object, such as a leaf or piece of lace, on top of the specially treated paper, covered it with glass, and exposed it to sunlight. The paper captured the image quickly and evenly, turning black in the exposed areas. He “fixed” the image by soaking the paper in a salt solution, creating the world’s first permanent negative. Six years later, he came up with a variation on the process that reduced his exposure times dramatically. A classicist as well as a scientist, Talbot named the new process calotype, which means “beautiful impression” in Greek.

YaleNews spoke with Chitra Ramalingam, a lecturer in the Department of History and the History of Science and Medicine Program; research associate at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA); and one of the editors of “William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography,” part of the “Studies in British Art” series published by the YCBA and its sister institution in London, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. She spoke about Talbot’s work, his varied interests in science and humanities, and how Yale students produce original research on some rarely seen photographs in Yale collections. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Who was William Henry Fox Talbot?

John Moffat, “William Henry Fox Talbot,” May 1864, Wikimedia Commons, public domain in the U.S.

Talbot was a Victorian “gentleman of science,” a wealthy and genteel man of leisure for whom science and scholarship were amateur activities. He had a country estate in Wiltshire, England, called Lacock Abbey, and was educated at Cambridge. He was an expert first in mathematics and classical scholarship. He then became very interested in chemistry and optics, which gave him the expertise to develop photography. He was also a devoted scholar of Assyriology and ancient history, and worked on deciphering cuneiform. Talbot was intimately connected to a network of elite scientists and scholars in all of these fields, so understanding him helps us understand the contours of the Victorian intellectual world and photography’s place in it. It wasn’t just an art form for Talbot; it was a way of recording and communicating knowledge about the world. So photography is part of the history of science, not just the history of art.

Where does he fit into the story of photography?

There are many people who have been called the “inventor of photography.” Talbot wasn’t the first person to use the light-sensitivity of silver salts to capture an image on a surface, but his was one of the two most successful and well-known early processes, and he worked hard to convince the scientific community and the wider public that he had invented his first photographic process independently of the others.

Talbot started working on ways of capturing images by the direct inscription of light in 1834. After perfecting his first successful process, which he called “photogenic drawing,” he abandoned it for a while, always intending to return to it and publish his research. Then to his horror and surprise, in January 1839, the newspapers started reporting on a French inventor who had come up with a way of capturing images by light. This was of course Louis Daguerre. This prompted Talbot to announce to the world his own research, and it turned out they were two very different processes. Talbot’s photogenic drawing process produced reproducible images on paper, whereas Daguerre’s produced unique images on metal, called “daguerreotypes.” There are many fine examples of American-made daguerreotypes at the Yale University Art Gallery and Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

In Britain, social status counted for a lot in the scientific community, and Talbot was embedded in it at the highest levels. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, an elite club of scientists, which at the time was dominated by wealthy gentlemen but was beginning to include men of more humble means (women, on the other hand, were not admitted until 1945). Talbot was able to use his scientific networks to ensure that his name would forever be attached to photography’s origins.

How did his work advance the field of photography?

William Henry Fox Talbot, front cover from Part 4, 21 June 1845 of “The Pencil of Nature,” London, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1844–1846, chromolithograph, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

Because paper was translucent, you could make a single photogenic drawing and then use it as a negative to make another. It was reproducible in a way that Daguerre’s work was not. In some sense that’s what we think of as the essence of photography today, the fact that a photograph is reproducible and not a singular, unique image. We owe that to Talbot.

In September 1840, Talbot came up with a way of intensifying the action of light on the page through a different set of chemical processes, which allowed for much shorter exposures. Rather than a couple of hours, it only took a few minutes or less to generate a “latent image” on the paper, which remained invisible until a chemical developer was applied. The shorter exposure times enabled a wider variety of subjects, most notably portraits of people. It was a really important shift in subject for the medium.

When celebrating the calotype we shouldn’t imagine that Talbot thought his work was done when he achieved that process. He was constantly working to improve it and there were many other patents he came up with in later years. The last improvement to photography he was working on in the early 1850s was photoglyphic engraving. This was an early form of what we now call photogravure, a photomechanical print process that translates photography into printer’s ink.

What was special about his publication “The Pencil of Nature?”

“The Pencil of Nature” was the first photographically illustrated commercial publication. It was issued in six fascicles, or volumes, between 1844 and 1846. We have four of the six at the YCBA and they include prints from Talbot’s calotype negatives — several of which are among the most iconic images of early photography.

Talbot’s goal was to produce multiple, identical copies of each print for each copy of the publication, but he encountered a lot of problems as production was scaled up. We tend to think of early photographs as black-and-white, or monochrome pictures, but the unpredictability of the calotype and photogenic drawing processes — because of the use of unstandardized chemicals, changes in the water supply, variability in commercially available paper, and the unreliable English summer sun — produced subtle differences in tone. Sometimes the print was purple-red, other times brown or bluish. Friends told Talbot that the different colors added value and made each copy unique and beautiful, but we know it was a source of great frustration for him.

Talbot never achieved consistency in the prints and was forced to scale down his original ambitions for the publication, losing a lot of money in the project.  While in some ways Talbot saw “The Pencil of Nature” as a failure, it’s an incredibly rare and important object.

Do we have other works by Talbot in the collections at Yale?

The Yale University Art Gallery has one of Talbot’s salt prints — “Scene in a Library” — a version of which also appears in “The Pencil of Nature.” In fact, Talbot had to carefully select 30 books, take them out of the library, and put them in the courtyard outdoors because he needed full sunlight to photograph them. So he set up a “fake library” with a shelf with a black backdrop and photographed it there.

The text accompanying the image says nothing of the books or libraries. Instead, it talks about how every photograph at the time was a result not only of visible rays of light, but also invisible ultraviolet rays that leave inscriptions on the image. So what you’re seeing in the image is never exactly what the eye would see.

Talbot hypothesized that if you separated visible rays of light from invisible using a prism, and directed them into a dark room, you could take a photograph in the dark just using the invisible rays. He understood the possibilities of this medium to go beyond the capabilities of the eye. Talbot couldn’t photograph by ultraviolet light alone at that moment, but here he was announcing to the world that this was something in photography’s future. Today of course, ultraviolet, infrared, and x-ray photography are familiar to all of us.

William Henry Fox Talbot, “Leaf of a Plant” (plate VII) from Part 2, 21 June 1845 of “The Pencil of Nature,” London, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1844–1846, salt paper print from photogenic drawing negative, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

In addition to the salt print, the art gallery has two of his early photoglyphic engravings. The YCBA also has one of Talbot’s salt prints from a calotype, pasted into a bound edition of Art Union magazine from 1846, the first attempt to include photographic illustrations in a periodical.

How do you use Yale’s collections in your teaching and research?

I’m interested in the visual and material culture of science in the modern period, especially the history of physics and of scientific photography, and Yale has remarkable collections for both. As part of my interest in the use of photographs as historical data in architectural surveys, I’ve been advising a group of undergraduates in the YCBA Student Guide program as they put together a student-curated exhibition featuring Victorian photographs of London buildings that will open in March 2016.

My classes use visits to collections around campus to bring the conceptual themes of the history of science to life through direct engagement with objects. I’m teaching a class this semester called “Photography and the Sciences” that includes both graduate and undergraduate students. Just under half of our seminars take place at libraries, museums, and archives around the university. We’re visiting photographic collections at the Beinecke, the art gallery, the Medical Historical Library, the new Lens Media Laboratory, and the Peabody Museum of Natural History, which has photographic material across its many departments. The Peabody’s Historical Scientific Instruments collection includes cameras, projection and animation devices, and photographs of various kinds, such as early x-rays, early photographs of particle tracks in a cloud chamber, and lantern slides used in science teaching at Yale until the 1930s.

Students in my class are asked to identify a photographic object in Yale collections that has never been written about before, and write a research paper about it. They find things that sometimes have not been looked at since they were put in storage and come to really exciting insights about them.

Last year, Caroline Lieffers, a Ph.D. candidate in History of Science and Medicine, found a cache of personal photographs at the Peabody taken by a Yale entomologist who was sent to the South Pacific during WWII as a medical entomologist. The student was able to draw out a fascinating story about relations between American military medical entomologists and local peoples and environments in the Pacific theater. There is so much rich material hiding in plain sight in Yale collections, and it makes teaching here such a pleasure.

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Media Contact

Amy Athey McDonald: amy.mcdonald@yale.edu,