phone mail2 facebook twitter play whatsapp
Advertisement
William Henry Fox Talbot and Nicolaas Henneman at the Reading establishment, 1846 © National Media Museum, Bradford

Fox Talbot: The Dawn of the Photograph at the Science Museum

22 April 2016 Tom Faber

The Science Museum’s latest major exhibition charts the life and experiments of William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the fathers of photography.

In ‘Ways of Seeing’, John Berger wrote “the invention of the camera changed the way men saw. The visible came to mean something different to them.” Before the camera, an image could only be in one place, and it was impossible to separate its meaning from its context. When man became able to create copies and freeze the visible as a photograph, the meanings of these images multiplied and fragmented. The effects of this can be seen in every aspect of modern life, from art and advertising to the very way we see the world around us. In the Science Museum’s major new exhibition, they trace this seismic change to its source, William Henry Fox Talbot, the father of modern photography.

From the outset of the exhibition, we are reminded how strange an idea a photograph must have been to the nineteenth century public. A camera could essentially freeze time, preserving a moment forever. As a result many associated it with the dark arts, a link made by the framed painting of an alchemist next to 1835’s The Latticed Window, the world’s first photographic negative. The camera wasn’t an instant success either. This exhibition focuses on all the failures, experimentations and minor victories that led to one of the most important inventions of the 19th century.

The story begins with a 33-year old Fox Talbot at Lake Como in Italy, sketching the scene with his wife and half-sisters. While the women were accomplished artists, Fox Talbot was lousy with a pencil, and attempted to trace an image that he superimposed on paper using a camera lucida. The result was poor (you can see exactly how poor in the exhibition’s second room, where both pad and camera lucida are displayed). Frustrated, Fox Talbot resolved to devise a new, modern way to capture images, capitalising on the recent industrial and scientific advances in Britain.

Fox Talbot was a member of the landed gentry, and had developed a keen interest in both arts and sciences during his studies at Cambridge. The first few rooms of the exhibition take in his first experimentations in the field of photography, including some of his very first inventions, tiny cameras that his wife Constance called ‘mousetraps’ because of their size and wooden casing. The prints on display mainly focus on architecture and landscape scenes, along with a few shots of his daughters (it would have taken a few minutes to expose a photograph, so moving subjects were tricky). Interestingly the majority of the photos on display here are facsimiles, because the originals are so chemically unstable that they are now all but invisible.

Bust of Patroclus, 1841

Alongside the first gentle explorations of form and lighting that make up Fox Talbot’s earliest shots, we learn about his key inventions. The creation of the calotype process dramatically shortened exposure time in cameras, while the later development of photoglyphic printing reduced fading in images. Through these monochrome stills we witness the birth of the negative-positive photographic process, which formed the basis of photography around the world for over 150 years.

But the exhibition does not present Fox Talbot as a man solely focused on art or the pursuit of scientific achievement. He had a keen commercial mind, and was constantly seeking new ways to monetise his invention. His first attempts to do so were in a series of photo books which the museum displays, including ‘The Pencil of Nature’, the first commercial publication to be illustrated by photographs. Later he would continue trying to improve his technology and find new ways to introduce photography to the mass market.

While Fox Talbot is undeniably the heart of the exhibition, some attention is also paid to his contemporaries, in particular Louis Daguerre, his French contemporary known for the invention of the Daguerreotype. One of the earliest examples of Daguerre’s images is on display, 1839’s ‘Les Coquillages’, loaned from the Musée des arts et métiers in Paris. While Daguerre sold his invention to the French government and lived the rest of his life off a generous pension, Talbot profited from controversial patents which severely limited the use of his technology by others.

A further room is devoted to some of Fox Talbot’s friends who used his technology to different ends, including Reverend Calvert Jones’ beautiful early travel photography and John Dillwyn Llewelyn’s nature scenes stocked with poorly stuffed critters. Rather than excellent pieces in their own right, these contemporary works show how each took photography into new territory, hinting at the proliferation of different applications that would follow.

It is worthwhile having some background knowledge about Fox Talbot and his life, because not every picture here tells a thousand words. But the exhibition stands as an impressive testament to a questing mind and the eternal well of human invention.

 

Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph is on from now until 11th September at the Science Museum. Tickets are £8, concessions are available.

{ad-placement-MPU1}

Most popular

What to See at The Cinema

What to See at The Cinema

Your go-to guide to what's on the silver screen
Advertisement
Top 5 Bars and Restaurants for Shisha-Lovers

Top 5 Bars and Restaurants for Shisha-Lovers

The five finest spots in London to shoot the breeze and pass the pipe
Advertisement
The Best Riverside Walks In London

The Best Riverside Walks In London

Oh we do like to be beside the canalside...
Advertisement
A Guide to the Best Lidos in London

A Guide to the Best Lidos in London

Looking to beat the heat or enjoy some fun in the sun? Here are our top 5 London lidos to enjoy this summer.
Advertisement
Top Theatre of the Week

Top Theatre of the Week

Where to get the best of new theatre openings in London
Top Exhibitions of the Week

Top Exhibitions of the Week

The place to come for all the best current exhibitions in London...
London’s Must-See Flower Shows in 2019

London’s Must-See Flower Shows in 2019

With the balmy weather here to stay, why not take in the sumptuous beauty that these London flower shows have to offer
Top Gigs of the Week

Top Gigs of the Week

From underground indie to rap stars to house legends, we've got you covered...
Where to Eat: Desserts in East London

Where to Eat: Desserts in East London

Even if the Easter bunny doesn’t visit your garden this month, there are plenty of ways to get your sweet fix this springtime

Your inbox deserves a little culture!!

Advertisement