Today starts a new tradition, our first guest blog. Over the coming months there will be periodic contributions by outside authors. Appropriately our first guest blog is by Brian Liddy, our new Research Assistant. Brian worked extensively with the Talbot collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford, for more than two decades; inevitably, some of these treasures emerged as personal favourites.
If you have an idea for a future blog that you would like to contribute (or wish to volunteer a colleague), just let me know. LJS
When you think of summer you probably think of words associated with fine warm weather. Some thoughts that are bound to come up, such as sun, sunlight, sunny or sunshine are also different ways to describe what was an essential element for successful early photography. Nowadays we don’t automatically associate photography with daylight, nevermind real sunshine. In this day and age most digital devices can generate a photographic image using only artificial light, which means that most of us can take a decent photograph even if we are indoors with the curtains drawn. The algorithms behind digital photography have been tuned to render any level and mixture of artificial and natural light perfectly adequate for the creation of a photographic image. But that was not always the case, and certainly not in Talbot’s day.
The earliest of Talbot’s photographic images were simple photograms: images so basic that you don’t even need a camera to make one. All that is required is a flat object, such as a leaf, a sheet of sensitized paper and sunlight. Talbot knew that the beauty of a photogram lay in its simplicity and outlined how to make a photogram of a leaf in The Pencil of Nature, where he referred to them as, “very pleasing pictures.” But perhaps, like many things in life, to make a good photogram of a leaf is easier said than done. In one letter to his wife Constance, Talbot firmly states, “Tell Nicole [their nickname for Nicolaas Henneman] I don’t want any more leaves and branches done. I must make some criticisms of his performances which I wish you to mention. He presses the plants much too tight, so that the juice is squeezed out, & spoils the pictures.”
There are no such signs of leaking plant juices in this beautiful photogram of the leaf as it was made with great care by Talbot. And the clipped tone of his letter? Why should Constance be expected to deliver such a brusque critique of Henneman’s technique when Talbot could have done so himself? Perhaps Talbot asked her to oversee photographic operations while he was away and relied upon her to ensure quality control. The customs then would certainly have made it unusual for Talbot to write directly to his footman on any matter considered beyond the traditional duties of a servant. And while Henneman’s position was probably unique in that the art of the photogram would not have been in any contract he may have signed, he was not unique in that he could not secure a photochemical shadow of a leaf (whether squashed, or not) without that precious ingredient, sunshine.
Questions or Comments? Brian Liddy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org • Please feel encouraged to contact Prof Schaaf directly at email@example.com • WHFT, Leaf, photogenic drawing negative, National Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-2002; Schaaf 1686. • WHFT, The Pencil of Nature (London, 1844 to 1846), Plate VII. • WHFT to Constance Talbot, 13 June 1841, Talbot Correspondence Project Document No. 04278.