Harold White (1902-1983) was the foremost Talbot scholar of his generation and in many ways shaped subsequent research in this field. A highly accomplished professional photographer, his 1949 endorsement of the ‘Nebro’ tripod would have carried more than sixteen stones of weight with his colleagues and must have contributed to its sales. He was a man of good cheer, rarely observed without a smoke in his hand. Harold undoubtedly staged this ebullient self-portrait in the garden behind his house (subsequently airbrushed out by the BJP). He probably used one of his larger plate cameras since his later favourite Rolleiflex would not have benefitted as much from a tripod.
It was in his capacity as a photographer that White first visited the village of Lacock in 1944, on assignment in a propaganda effort to depict an English village doing just fine, thank you, during the war. Matilda Talbot, the inventor’s granddaughter, was making her own contributions to the war effort, additionally taking the precaution of hiding the Lacock copy of the Magna Carta under the flagstones in Sherington’s Tower, just in case the threatened invasion came to pass. White was obviously captivated by Miss Talbot and the stories of her grandfather (as am I, and we’ll be returning to look at her in more depth in a future blog). After the war White began to visit Lacock Abbey regularly, often bringing his wife and daughter along for extended stays. It was during one of these visits that they unearthed Talbot’s plaster cast of Patroclus, long abandoned in a shed and caked with mud. White’s wife Edith and his young daughter Patricia spent some time cleaning him up using toothbrushes. His somewhat softened features today may have resulted from this. Miss Talbot had been seeking someone to write a biography of Henry Talbot and in 1946 Beaumont Newhall approved of her choice of Harold White. By 1950 she and White had agreed to co-author the text. It was a book that was never to be completed but the process of preparing for it was to have enormous influence on the organization and preservation of the Lacock Abbey collection. This has affected Talbot studies ever since.
Part of what sets Harold White apart from more casual researchers (then and now) was his dedication to anchoring his conclusions by reference to the abundant original documents. In a self portrait from around 1950, he has staged himself in the South Gallery of Lacock Abbey, in the bay just west of the famous Oriel Window. Little did he know that the sight of the copious sunlight, the teetering stack of original letters and the dangling ash of his cigarette would prove uncomfortable for later conservators. It is a cinematic view, its lighting mimicking films of the period. The stack of letters symbolizes hard work and the cigarette serious intent on the part of the researcher. A very intelligent, creative and hard-working individual, White had no formal training in research or writing. He adopted an empirical approach, trusting that by absorbing the massive amount of information contained in the documents he would learn the truth about Talbot. Sir John Herschel would have approved of this inductive reasoning.
This is one of Talbot’s large format negatives taken with his original photogenic drawing method, a print-out process where no development was involved, just solar energy. As miserable as the weather had been in photography’s first public year of 1839, it was brilliant in 1840. Talbot enjoyed fine sunlight starting in the early spring and by summer he was advancing rapidly both technically and aesthetically. The iodide fixing of his negatives made them susceptible to lightening rather than darkening with continued exposure to light, but Talbot and later Harold White knew that the image was still there, just not in a form that our eyes could perceive. White used a modern Metol-Quinone developer to redevelop this negative, recording in a typewritten label that this was based on Talbot’s discovery in September 1840, just as he was inventing the Calotype. In his Notebook Q for 23 September 1840, Talbot found that his ‘exciting liquid’ – his newly discovered gallic acid developer – “restores or revives old pictures on Waterloo paper which have worn out, or become to faint to give any more copies.” As a photographer (lapsed) myself, even over the course of making thousands of prints I never lost the excitement and anticipation of watching the image on a piece of printing paper slowly but steadily gather strength in the pan of developer (go watch the classic film Blow Up if you have never had this experience yourself). One can imagine Harold White’s sense of triumph and satisfaction when he took a blank or nearly so Talbot original and brought it back to life. He must have felt that he had been transplanted into Talbot’s body of more than a century earlier as he watched the image form.
White worked to retrieve prints as well. A century after Talbot made this salted paper print, he proudly claimed to have ‘experimentally restored’ it. This print and the negative above actually started out physically and chemically the same. Talbot could have cut the same sheet of sensitive paper in half and made the negative on one portion and this print on another. The difference came in fixing – the negative was stabilized with potassium iodide and this print was fixed with hypo. The causes for fading were different in these two cases, something White understood very well, so he adopted a different approach here. He appended a typewritten note to this example explaining that he used Kodak’s IN-5 Silver Intensifier (a common solution that just might be familiar to some of our older readers) and suggested that “it will be seen that this method was quite successful.” And it remains so to this day, more than seventy years later.
Perhaps because he was proud of his work, perhaps because he was a collector who knew that future market values could be affected by his transformations, White was absolutely scrupulous about permanently marking the originals that he had worked on. The ‘I HW’ in indelible ink helps to identify these. Similar markings occur on these three examples and on every other one that I have seen. Harold White was a complicated figure, working in a period when there were no established customs or rules. In his restoration work, he had the good fortune of being unaffected by market forces that had yet to evolve.
Finally, although it takes us away from Harold White long before this story is exhausted, it might be worth mentioning that there are a few examples of this photographic captioning similar to the rare example above.
In order to make these labels, Talbot wrote out the text in ink on a sheet of paper, then waxed it for transparency and used these in one of two ways. In the case of Queen’s above, he simply placed the ink label on the same sheet of paper as the photographic negative and printed them simultaneously. In the example on the right, he would have flipped the label over and created a photographic negative by printing it by contact on a sheet of photogenic drawing paper. This photographic negative could be used to make prints. which presumably would have been trimmed and mounted on the same board as the main photographic print. Although one might at first assume that these captions were done by Henneman for his print sales, they are written in Talbot’s hand. Were they an experiment? Were these done in the mid-1840s, contemporaneous with the photographic negative, or the early 1850s, whcn Talbot made up some small albums for personal use? Or were these labels made up for a special exhibition? I hope for the latter and for a review turning up some day of how people were reacting to this new art.
Larry J Schaaf
Questions or Comments? Please feel encouraged to contact Prof Schaaf directly at email@example.com • Paul Godfrey kindly contributed the tripod and camera self-portraits – see his ode to Harold White’s Lacock. Paul has closely examined his print and believes that the Rolleiflex dates from 1939-1949. It is badged ‘Franke & Heidecke’ and the focusing hood is of the early type lacking a sportsfinder. The Carl Zeiss lens is a 75mm f3.5 and is a double bayonet model, taking a filter on the viewing as well as the taking lens. These specs match the Rollei Automat model 2 (K4B), manufactured from 1939 to 1945, or the nearly identical Model 3 (K4B2) , produced from 1945 until 1949. Of course this provides only the earliest possible dating, for Harold might have had the camera a long time or may even have acquired a second hand one when the portrait was made. • An amalgamated transcription of Harold White’s various drafts, along with additional information on him and his collection, can be found in my Sun Pictures Catalogue Three: The Harold White Collection of Works by William Henry Fox Talbot (New York: Hans P Kraus, Jr, Inc, 1987). • Harold White, Matilda Talbot at Lacock Abbey, holding her copy of The Pencil of Nature, silver bromide print, ca. 1950, private collection. • Harold White, Self portrait at Lacock Abbey, silver bromide print, ca. 1950, private collection. • Harold White, Sundry Notes, Doubtful Importance, undated manuscript wrapper, Manuscripts Division, the British Library, London, Add MS 88942/9/1. • Harold White, Self Portrait with a Rolleiflex, silver bromide print (can some reader date this from the camera?). • WHFT, The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey, probably 1835, Photogenic drawing negative, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee and Anonymous Gifts, 1997 (1997.382.1), Schaaf 1100. • WHFT, Tower from Urn, photogenic drawing negative, 31 May 1840, restored by Harold White; courtesy of Hans P Kraus, Jr, Inc, New York; Schaaf 2438. • WHFT’s notebooks P and Q are in the National Media Museum, Bradford; their pages are reproduced in full facsimile and transcription in my Records of the Dawn of Photography: Talbot’s Notebooks P & Q (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). • WHFT, The Ancient Vestry: Calvert Jones in the Sacristy, Lacock Abbey, salt print from a calotype negative, 9 September 1845, restored by Harold White; courtesy of Hans P Kraus, Jr, Inc, New York; Schaaf 1913. • WHFT, Queen’s College Oxford, with photographic label, salt print from a combination of a calotype negative and a photogenic drawing negative, 1843-1845; intensified by Harold White; Schaaf 220. Provenance unknown; this is currently being offered by Bernard Quaritch, Ltd, London, in their catalogue The Photographic Process; Creation, Dissemination and Conservation. • Harold White, I HW, ink inscription on the verso of an intensified salt print, private collection. • WHFT, Label for use as a negative, ink on paper, waxed, mid 1840s?, National Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-4459, Schaaf 3885. • WHFT, Photographic label, salt print from a manuscript master, mid 1840s?, Photographic History Collection, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, 1908-A; Schaaf 4782. In addition to being unusual, this is one of their earliest Talbot holdings, having been donated by Charles Henry Talbot in 1908.