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out of the shadows

8 may 2022

Larry Schaaf's Out of the Shadows has the format and visual appeal of a coffee-table book, but it is also an influential scholarly history of a pair of English inventors who dominated early 19th-century photography. The Herschel of the title is John, son of astronomer William, a polymathic, celebrated naturalist in his own right. The Talbot is William Henry Fox, whose astonishing salt prints from calotype negatives figure in many an illustrated history of photographs.

Though Herschel and Talbot met occasional setbacks along the way to their innovations, they both came from comfortable, well-connected backgrounds. Both excelled at university. Their challenges were more along the lines of finding the right fields to shine in, rather than mundane stuff like making a living.

Schaaf sets the personal and social context for the advances that Herschel and Talbot made, and then backs up to give "a selective pre-history of photography." Few inventions have come about so contingently, from such a mix of pre-existing techniques that needed catalyzing. No wonder that there is no single father of photography: though the craft may have a mother, the enigmatic Mrs. Fulhame, who worked in the 1780s at "producing patterns on cloth by the deposition of gold and other metals, including through the action of light" (24).

In the 1830s, Talbot invented various kinds of photography, and Herschel embarked on many more. Their work ran parallel to and quite differently from Louis Daguerre's invention. But questions of priority were to plague the Englishmen. Daguerre announced his invention first and became synonymous with commercial photography in the mid-19th century. Talbot became a footnote in the popular received narrative, even though his work is widely acknowledged by historians. Herschel's contributions, the most important from an applied-science perspective, are now relatively little-known.

Schaaf presents the two Englishmen swapping ideas and sparking each other to test new processes. They dreamt up: photography as a way of producing images on paper; photographic negatives on paper and then on glass; photography as a way of producing multiple positive images on paper from negatives; color photography; photography as a way of copying documents and pictures; cyanotypes; and photography as a technique for printing periodicals and books. Daguerre, on the other hand, had just one process: ideal for portraits, but limited to uncanny unique images on metal plates.

At times, Schaaf can get wound up in correspondence that establishes the priority of this or that discovery, and in the minutiae of chemistry that go into those discoveries. Lots of trees, not much forest: it can even be difficult to glean from Out of the Shadows the nature of the calotype, the photographic negative that was the key to Talbot's photographic philosophy, and thus to the next 150 years of photography. But YouTube and Wikipedia can supply the elision (which Schaaf may simply assume his reader already understands).

The calotype was simply the exposed piece of treated paper on which Talbot had learned to produce negative images, first by laying things on the paper in sunlight, later by exposing the paper in a camera obscura (a box with a pinhole that casts a reversed image on its far wall). A calotype could be used to print repeated positive images. Talbot simply laid the calotype negative on top of a "salted" piece of printing paper and put the two-ply item back into sunlight again. The calotype paper was transparent enough that the light produced a "salt print" that was a negative of the negative, and thus a positive. No fancy darkroom technique yet: the resulting picture was a "contact print" the size of the negative itself.

Schaaf argues convincingly, partly by including beautifully tinted illustrations, that even if Daguerre is the father of commercial photography, Talbot was photography's first artist. Schaaf contends that Talbot was driven to invent the photograph because he could not draw. (Herschel, by contrast, was an excellent draughtsman, less impelled by practical exigency.)

Talbot could imagine and assess images, but had trouble producing them with his own hands. Before his inventions, such artists were always manqués. Talbot loved camera images, both those cast by the camera lucida (which shines a picture onto paper so that you can trace it). But even with the aid of the camera lucida, you still need to be able to draw. Fixing the images projected into the interior of the camera obscura involved less artistic intervention. Through chemistry, Talbot could let the force of light register images on paper, the famous "pencil of nature." But no mechanical process could substitute for his judgment in developing them, and his taste in choosing subjects, and his preserving the best instances of those mysteriously unfolding pictures.

Talbot's photographs have a haunting quality now. Many are carefully posed and "framed" (though their actual physical edges have a slapdash, unfinished quality that just adds to their appeal). But Talbot's salt prints also have a strange impromptu character. Talbot's world, and the people in it, give the impression of not yet realizing that they can be photographed – a quality that daguerreotype sitters, highly self-conscious, rarely convey. The resulting œuvre is unique – and unrepeatable.

Schaaf, Larry J. Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot, & the Invention of Photography. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. TR 57 .S32