Early Days

One of the sites I like to look at occasionally is the Blogs page of British Photographic History, launched in 2009 by Dr Michael Pritchard, where there are often posts from members that interest me, though I write far less about photographic history than I used to when I was writing for another place.

There of course I chose to write about many of the important figures in the medium, including its inventors and many of the early greats of the medium, drawing very much on the lessons I’d earlier given on photographic history as well as published works and the generally rather small amount of information on the Internet in the early 2000s. But although I spent some time looking at actual photographs in collections, exhibitions and museums and was involved for some time in actually creating images using some of the early techniques, I was never really a historian, relying largely on the contributions of others though occasionally with a little of my own interpretation and perspective. And just a few times being able to point out some of the errors in published work.

I wrote at least four full-length features on the work of W H F Talbot, both about the processes he developed – photogenic drawing, salt paper printing and the calotype – and his use of photography, particularly in his ‘Pencil of Nature‘. And while I had access to a number of books on him and his work, the William Henry Fox Talbot catalogue raisonn√© now available in a beta version and formally announce this Friday would have been a great extra resource.

You can read more about the project, led by Larry J Schaaf on the site itself, so I need not waste your time with details here. There are some parts of the site which are not yet complete, but there is already a very large searchable collection of the work of Talbot himself, as well as a number by Calvert Richard Jones and a few by others.

From the catalogue record you can click on the image to go to the image viewere, which as well as allowing you to zoom in, also has some tools (at top left) by which you can alter brightness and contrast, change from colour to greyscale, and invert the image – particularly useful when viewing the paper negatives.

There are some exhibits that seem almost to be blank paper – either because they were greatly underexposed or because images have faded with time. But perhaps as a scientist, Talbot beleived in keeping the result of every experiment he made with the new medium. Fading of prints was certainly a major issue in the early days, and many surviving Talbot prints have faded badly, sometimes to the extent that they have little value as pictures, though this doesn’t stop them being sold for silly money.

Photography on paper really became practical with Talbot’s calotype process, and the two people who produced the best-known body of work in the early days were Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill (who I think should be thought of in that order) working as a team in Edinburgh in the early 1840s. Also on British Photographic History was a post about the sale of their former premises, Rock House, next to Calton Hill in Edinburgh for more then ¬£1.7m. The post links to both the estate agents site for the property and to an article in The Herald about the sale. Although it would be a grand place to live, I didn’t put in a bid for it, as the “house was recently redesigned internally by Jonathan Reed, a designer who had worked for figures such as David Bowie, Giancarlo Giammetti and Queen Rania of Jordan” and I think I would want a complete redesign for comfort before trying to live there having seen the pictures.

The studios, later home to other notable Scottish photographers, have been bought by an individual who wishes to remain private, but Adamson & Hill’s real studios where they made the great majority of their portraits are the Edingburgh cemeteries which remain open to the public.

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