The Pencil of Nature by W.H.F. Talbot
E-file of the original text and its 24 plates: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/33447/33447-h/33447-h.html (Accessed 17/03/2017)
Official website with full text of the book: http://www.thepencilofnature.com/ (Accessed 17/03/2017)
An essay from the MET Museum interestingly retraces the history of Talbot’s early photographic experiments, approximately at the same time of Daguerre’s in France. See: Daniel, Malcolm. “William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) and the Invention of Photography.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm (October 2004) [online] At: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm (Accessed 17/03/2017)
Some notes on the text
The Pencil of Nature by W.H.F. Talbot, the first published book illustrated with photographs (24 calotype* prints), contains the full text of Talbot’s writings on photography and was published in London between 1844 and 1846. The tables are examples of the possible uses of the new technology that Talbot called Photogenic Drawing.
Curiously the cover page does not show a photograph, but consists in an intricate Celtic design in the Victorian style typical of the time.
Talbot first ‘found that a sheet of fine writing paper, coated with salt and brushed with a solution of silver nitrate, darkened in the sun, and that a second coating of salt impeded further darkening or fading’ and ‘he called his new discovery “the art of photogenic drawing.”'(Malcolm, 2004 above). In 1840 Talbot discovered that exposing for a few seconds to the sun a chemically treated paper he obtained ‘a latent image that could be brought out with the application of an “exciting liquid” (essentially a solution of gallic acid)’ (idem). Talbot patented this invention as the “calotype” process in 1841 (Daniel, 2004).
His introductory remarks to The Pencil of Nature include several interesting points that help us understand how photography was considered in the 1840s and also how much our vision of it has changed.
As remarked by Creative Arts Today (page 146) even Talbot’s title, The Pencil of Nature, indicates that photography – literally the writing of light – was for him a sort of automatic drawing by nature, with scarce or no intervention of man if not for the chemicals used to ‘trap’ light. It was a handy and useful substitution for the artist’s pencil. According to Talbot’s words in the Introductory Remarks, the plates ‘are impressed by Nature’s hand’.
Even so some of Talbot’s plates, for example Plate VI ‘The Open Door’, already show a care for visual qualities which go beyond a faithfully mechanical reproduction of the real world; in this case a rustic scene of daily life is artistically composed with a great attention to framing and light effects.
In an interesting passage Talbot remarks that photographic art can even see what the human eye cannot, as ‘certain invisible rays which lie beyond the violet, and beyond the limits of the spectrum’, and so ‘the eye of the camera would see plainly where the human eye would find nothing but darkness’ and is in a sense superior to it.
Do I see photography as mechanical or creative?
I must say that I almost never tried to consciously make art while taking photographs and am happy to be given a chance during this course to consider photography with deeper attention and focus for the first time on its expressive qualities. I have mostly always used photography to fix special moments, to store images for documentation in the same way that I clip visual ideas from magazines, or as a shortcut to drawing or taking a note.
This is not to say that I do not value photographs as art when I view them in galleries or in books, but for what I am concerned I generally have the feeling that I do not have the ability to take full advantage of cameras, so I tend to use them in the automatic mode or choose easily understandable ‘scenes’ like macro, landscape or interiors when I have some specific needs. For everything else I normally need to have a look into my instruction manual. It is only since the advent of smartphones that I feel more comfortable with taking photos and now I press my camera button almost as often as everybody else, but I still do not see my photos as art.
Being so inexperienced in the technical aspects of photography it is really interesting to read of Talbot’s early efforts to capture and fix images and for the first time I have felt curious about finding out more and learn about the history of photography. Talbot’s concentration on the technical developments of the new medium as against an attention to its artistic potential and implications looks to me unavoidable and totally understandable in those pioneering days in which the technical process of photography was being tentatively explored. I think that today, in the time of easy digital photography with smartphones and tablets, it is again very useful to go back to the roots of photography in order to understand the nature of the medium and also look at it from what has become an unusual perspective.
In my opinion the focus on technology is no obstacle to creative expression, quite the opposite a good knowledge of how photography works may be a stimulus to creation and generate new ideas as it happens in other media too. There may be photographers who are more technologically versed or interested, others who are mostly conceptually driven but I believe that a sound acquaintance with the technical aspects of a medium never hurts while ignorance can be a severe limitation.
*Calotype: Calotype or talbotype is an early photographic process introduced in 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot, using paper coated with silver iodide. The term calotype comes from the Greek καλός (kalos), “beautiful”, and τύπος (tupos), “impression”. (from Wikipedia, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calotype (Accessed 06/04/2017)