Acquired by the present owner in 1972
This unique early photograph is from the series of photogenic drawings that Talbot executed in 1839 and 1840, prior to his development of the calotype process (see Lots 41-43). It is an image from the very dawn of photography and captures within its diminutive frame not only the excitement of discovery but Talbot's instinctive talent for photographic composition.
Talbot had begun his experiments in capturing scenes from life with light-sensitive agents in 1834. Initially, he was recreating, if unwittingly, the work done by Thomas Wedgwood and Humphry Davy early in the 19th century: by coating ordinary paper with a solution of salt and, subsequently, with silver nitrate, a light-sensitive surface was created which was capable of capturing an image. These early images, however, had very little longevity, could only be viewed for brief periods by candlelight, and would fade rapidly when viewed in normal daylight. Talbot's great innovation to this process was to fine-tune the ratio of salt to silver nitrate: less salt, and more silver nitrate, made the paper more light-sensitive; and the application of a strong solution of salt after exposure terminated the paper's sensitivity to light. Talbot's innovation was a momentous one for the history of photography in that it laid the groundwork for creating permanent photographic images on paper that could be viewed as finished works themselves, as is the case with the photograph offered here, or could serve as negatives from which a theoretically unlimited number of positives could be printed.
Photogenic drawings differ from Talbot's later calotype images in one important aspect: the image emerges during the exposure of a photogenic drawing. In a calotype, the image becomes visible only after the exposed image is treated chemically. So, Talbot would have been able to see a photogenic drawing immediately once it was removed from the camera obscura (in this instance), or once objects had been removed from the surface of the paper, as in the instance of the following lot.
During this period in 1839 and 1840, Talbot made photogenic drawings by several methods. He had locally commissioned a number of primitive camera obscuras, small wooden boxes to which he attached high-quality microscope lenses. The image offered here, likely made at his home, Lacock Abbey, was made with such a device. Clearly visible beyond the grid of window frames in the image is a rough stone wall and, beyond that, a row of bare pollarded trees. The image would have been taken from within the Abbey, and the bare trees indicate that it was likely taken in winter.
Larry J. Schaaf, the foremost authority on Talbot and photography's formative years, suggests that 1839 and 1840, during which Talbot made such great technical strides with his photogenic drawing process, was also a period of great artistic development for this first photographer: 'It was during this year that his greatest aesthetic growth was to occur.' Schaaf notes that, 'Each process [calotype and photogenic drawing] embodied its own little bit of magic, but there was an immediacy to the images produced by photogenic drawing--images that literally grew in the sun--that had a compelling and magical effect on Henry Talbot. Long before the calotype was invented, photogenic drawing had taught him how to see' (Sun Pictures, Catalogue Seven, pp. 7 and 10).
Schaaf has examined this photogenic drawing and has issued it the number 3860 in his catalogue raisonné of Talbot and his circle.
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