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Ying Yang Branches

Isn’t this an extraordinary photograph!  The bold simplicity of paper white contrasted against the deep rich brown deposited silver immediately grabs our attention.  This has variously been described as leaves of asparagus or pond plants – perhaps Dr Harris could weigh in on the identification from whatever field trip he is on at the moment.

It is one of eleven such photogenic drawing negatives that I know of spread through several public and private collections.  They are heavily coveted and widely reproduced.  In fact, this is how I illustrate my Talbot vs. ‘Fox Talbot’ page.  None of these is inscribed in any way save for the occasional pencil ‘X’ used to designate the sensitised side of the paper.  Two are watermarked ‘J Whatman Turkey Mill 1840’, two are watermarked ‘J Whatman Turkey Mill 1842’, and one has a partial watermark that is indistinct.

I’ve never traced any reference in Talbot’s notes to these, but I wonder if that is because I don’t know what I am looking for?  In their present state (and judging from book reproductions, for many years) these appear to be intentionally strong and stark images.  Until some conservator proves me wrong, I am going to assume that they were fixed with hypo, giving them great stability.  The fact that there are at least eleven similar ones, using different botanical subjects as their originals, must mean that Talbot found something equally pleasing about them.

But did Henry see what we now see?

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Prints from these photogenic drawing negatives are very rare but that is true of most of Henry’s early work.  Produced for his own pleasure and education, their negative state was the outcome of Nature’s actions and the outline was just as readable for Henry as would be a print.  It was only after Lady Elisabeth got after him to make prints that ordinary people could more comfortably ‘read’, combined with the growing demand for examples after photography went public in January 1839 that he began to do what he knew how to do since at least 1834, namely, make a negative from a negative, ie, a positive print.  The above pair, brought together in one of Talbot’s personal albums, makes us question the original state of the eleven negatives.  The print clearly demonstrates that the negative once had a great deal of fine detail in what are now the stark white areas.

Hypo fixer was a mixed blessing.  Used properly and washed out thoroughly, it came as close as possible to making the photographic material immune to further exposure to light.  However, it had a bleaching effect, so that one needed to make the image a little darker than the desired final result, a trial and error operation.  Furthermore, the bleaching did not have a uniform effect on the whole range of tones.  The image that we see is made up of very finely divided clusters of metallic silver.  Their size, distribution, reflection and diffraction characteristics cause our eyes to perceive colours.  The lightest areas have the smallest and most widely distributed clusters and these are most vulnerable.  Imagine two spheres of pure silver, one the size of a melon and one the size of a lentil.  When they tarnish, some of their surface silver is converted to silver sulphide.  Now polish them, removing the tarnish which is partially made up of the original silver.  Repeat this over and over again.  The lentil-sized piece will eventually disappear, for its surface area is proportionately much larger in comparison to its mass.  One sees this very commonly in albumen prints such as stereo cards and CDVs – the highlights are bleached even if the shadow areas retain some strength.

Hypo fixing had the same effect – it attacked all of the silver in the print but it was the lighter areas, with their much more delicate silver clusters, that were most heavily affected.  Hence, a negative of a certain density could have its lighter areas bleached back to paper white but still leave a very dense background.

So that raises the question of what Talbot saw and what he intended in this series.  Did he like the effect and produce these proudly and intentionally?  Or did they start out being fixed with something more gentle such as potassium bromide?  Did he print the above negative while it still retained its interior detail, fixed perhaps with bromide, and then after making the print re-fix the negative in hypo to get to its present appearance?  Why did he mount these side by side in one album – an album unhelpfully labelled by him only as ‘Partial Fill’?

But regardless of sequence or motivation, they remain among some of Henry Talbot’s most stunning images.

Larry J Schaaf

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• Questions or Comments? Please contact Prof Schaaf directly at larry.schaaf@bodleian.ox.ac.uk  • WHFT, Two Delicate Botanical Branches, photogenic drawing negative, ca. 1842, Private Collection, reproduction courtesy of Hans P Kraus, Jr, New York; Schaaf 2007.   • WHFT, Fern, photogenic drawing negative on paper watermarked “J Whatman Turkey Mill 1842,” ca. 1842, with salted paper print; National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-2533/42 and 1937-2533/43; Schaaf 1183.