Tuesday, August 19, 2008

William Henry Fox Talbot by Geoffrey Batchen

For one of the guys who invented photography, William Henry Fox Talbot is only represented in my library by way of one object. It is a portfolio of a dozen loose gravure plates which was published by Electra Editrice in 1980 and frankly, my Talbot portfolio has been viewed many fewer times than the Edweard Muybridge or Lewis Caroll editions that I own from the same series. With the rapid advances to the medium it is often hard to look back and get excited by an image of a wall that has barely registered onto paper or a piece of lace that was laid directly onto some light sensitive paper but a recent book from Geoffrey Batchen on Talbot and his practice energizes these early stepping stones of image making.

The invention of photography is shared by several from Johann Heinrich Schulze, who as far back as the 1720s discovered that silver nitrate darkened with exposure to light, to Thomas Wedgwood and Sir Humphry Davy who in the early 19th century were making photograms but weren't able to arrest the development process. Joseph Nicéphore Niepce made the first known photograph in 1826 at the same time that Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot were working out their own photo processes. Daguerre's announcement of his method of making a positive image on a silver plate took a bit of the wind out of Talbot's sails as Talbot had worked on his experiments in silence years many years before any public awareness of his advances.

What puts Talbot ahead of the others for me is his patented process that allowed photographic illustrations to be included in books. His Pencil of Nature (1844-46), a description of his process illustrated with 24 original prints is considered to be the first photo book.

Batchen's book William Henry Fox Talbot published by Phaidon is a fine tribute to this early pioneer.

With the possibilities open in those early years, Talbot shows himself to be truly curious to a wide variety of descriptions; from portraits to still lifes and from photomicrographs of crystals and plants, to pictures that foreshadow photography's ability to still motion. One interesting example is his "A Cascade of Spruce Needles" (1839). Essentially a contact image of spruce needles but their arrangement implies a pattern of falling needles.

In the 1830s, Talbot would leave home-made cameras lying around his estate during the long periods required to make even the thinnest of exposures; his wife Constance referred to them as "mouse-traps." These mouse-traps caught low angle views of tree groves and rooflines that are barely record onto the paper negative and are represented in the final image through a wonderful haze of chemical imperfection.

William Henry Fox Talbot as a book is a nearly perfect package for these great specimens. The paper is beautiful, the printing is extremely well done, and the final touches of the cover tip-on image and clean design add a modern elegance. The most enjoyable trait is Batchen's caption paragraphs that accompany each image.

Talbot deserves to be noticed especially by book-lovers. He invented the form. If you can't have the Pencil of Nature then this may be the next best thing.

Book Available Here (William Henry Fox Talbot)


Anonymous said...

I will look for this book. It is hard to believe that there could be any finer than leading Talbot scholar Larry Schaaf's book, 'The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot' issued by Princeton University Press in 2000.

Anonymous said...

I have a copy of the Larry Schaaf book and I think it is one the most beautifully printed photobooks ever made. I even started looking for books printed by the same firm: Stamperia Valdonega in Verona, Italy.

'The book of 101 books' is another very fine example printed by Stamperia Valdonega.

Anonymous said...

Just checking back after reading this when it was first posted and am tickled that two posts have mentioned Larry Schaaf. I'd thought of him also and how enjoyable his writing is and how enthused he gets when discussing the incunabula of photography. H.P. Kraus' Sun Catalogues are, I believe, exquisite gems and Mr. Schaaf has had a hand in some (or most?) of them as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,
Thank you for this post. It really is a lovely book. Batchen writes with a genuine sense of wonder, making the technical and aesthetic information come alive and telling the story of photography in an engaging way. We also worked very hard to ensure the reproductions were dead on and, of course being Phaidon, that the design suited the material and presented it in a fresh way. I'm glad you're enthusiastic about it.

Denise Wolff at Phaidon