William Henry Fox Talbot, the British scientist and inventor, who was born in 1800, was a polymath, well-versed in subjects from botany to the classics, which he studied at Cambridge University. But it was his frustration with paper and pencil that led to his most lasting contributions, in the nascent medium of photography. After failing to sketch, with the assistance of a camera lucida, the natural beauty he beheld on a trip to Lake Como, in Italy, he wrote, “How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper.” When he returned to Lacock Abbey, the family residence in Wiltshire, England, he began experimenting with salt, paper, and sunlight. In 1839, he publicly announced a new process for making photographs. Using light-sensitive silver nitrate, he was able to create “photogenic drawings,” imprinting the shadows of opaque objects onto paper. A few years later, he would develop a new and more stable photographic technique, the calotype, which was far more economical than the daguerreotype, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s method for capturing images on polished silver plating.
Talbot’s pioneering images—which the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library is currently in the process of digitizing—are a window into his obsessions, both alchemical and aesthetic. A bust of Patroclus speaks to Talbot’s classical interests, and also to his understanding that photographing white surfaces allowed for more manageable exposure times. When he brought his camera to Oxford’s campus to document the university’s architecture, he was working to insure that he could capture detail beyond the formal scenes he had been arranging at his estate, and was also enchanted by the idea of imbuing his images with a historical quality that might help them transcend his era. But among the reported twenty-five thousand or so extant negatives and prints that Oxford aims to gather, there are a number that are completely indecipherable. Each of these apparently blank pieces of paper likely showed an image at some point—maybe a detail of some lace (Talbot’s mother had been a serious collector) or an arrangement of objects on the grounds of the family abbey—but now bears just smudges or darkened corners. These traces of failed and faded images make evident the challenge that Talbot spent his life working to solve: finding a way to take and then fix photographs on paper. The fleeting record of a leaf’s outline may have pleased him initially, but by the end of his career he was disappointed that detailed images printed on paper were fading over time.
Photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot / Courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art
This dilemma of Talbot’s has become, in the century and a half since his death, a dilemma for the curators who study and exhibit his work. As Dan Leers, the curator of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s upcoming exhibition “William Henry Fox Talbot and the Promise of Photography,” explains, to display certain Talbot images would be to destroy them. To measure and control potential damage, Leers recently deployed a device called a spectrophotometer, which is used to help track degradation from exposure to light. He says that, if a reading of an image indicates any risk of “deep-sixing,” that particular photograph will no longer be displayed. For the most vulnerable Talbot works, the Carnegie will be showing facsimiles. “We hide them from ourselves, too,” Leers told me, of the originals that will not be shown. Of course, making facsimiles requires finding a way to recapture Talbot’s pictures, which cannot be done without exposing the hypersensitive prints to some light. Rather than using a standard flash or photographing them in dim natural light, a pulsing, low-lumen strobe is employed. Formulae have been developed to estimate the exposure time that different photographs can bear before detrimental change might occur. At the Carnegie, the especially sensitive photogenic drawings will be displayed under lights dialled back to half the brightness typical of photographic exhibitions. Talking to Leers about the lengths to which he and other museum curators must go for such conservation, one gets the sense that, on top of being a vital protective measure, these processes are themselves something worthy of exhibition. It’s easy, at least, to imagine that William Henry Fox Talbot, an inventor so keenly interested in chemistry and light, would appreciate the elaborate methods being used to keep his images fixed to the page.