William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography ed. by Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean and Chitra Ramalingam (review)
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WILLIAM HENRY FOX TALBOT: BEYOND PHOTOGRAPHY edited by Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean and Chitra Ramalingam. Yale University Press, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2013. Series: Studies in British Art (Book 23). 320 pp. Trade. ISBN: 978-0300179347.

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) is largely remembered today as a British pioneer in photography. Because his photographic innovations were pursued along with his numerous other tracks of inquiry, his broad portfolio has remained enigmatic in relation to his legacy. The 10 essays that compose William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography draw upon letters, diaries, research notebooks, botanical specimens and photographic prints to document his complexity. As they do so, the authors deepen our understanding of Talbot the man and adeptly place him within the Victorian knowledge systems of the 19th century. As a whole, the essays reinforce the idea that science and society are not one-dimensional. They additionally underscore that when we look at the convergence in terms of knowledge transfer, it is clear that getting from point A to point B is rarely a simple operation.

As fascinating as the composite is, as Simon Schaffer notes in his concluding commentary, Talbot's proper place in history nonetheless remains ambiguous. Even his name reminds us of this, for he is often referred to as Fox Talbot in the literature despite his own dislike of having Fox included in his surname. Although it is difficult to find a succinct rounding principle for him, the book does detail how Talbot, a man of the 19th century, worked on problems challenging 19th-century minds. His accomplishments retrospectively illuminate the Victorian Age—and its many political, social, intellectual, technical and industrial changes. It also reveals a man who pursued a number of tracks of interest to people of his stature at that time: optics, mathematics, botany, archaeology and classical studies. If the relationship of his photographic innovations to these other fields is one of striking threads within the volume, it is balanced with notations about his role as a part of the network of scientific and intellectual change. That the authors do not agree about the level of Talbot's contributions is both a plus and a minus. The book as a whole underscores that we cannot reduce his photography to iconography. The lingering question that in effect encircles the areas of disagreement centers is how should we best define Talbot's importance overall in the scheme of things?

Two introductory essays introduce the reader to his passions and his pursuits. Three topical sections and a concluding commentary follow the overview. The first section, "Models for Investigation," begins with Anne Secord's essay presenting Talbot's fascination with botany, particularly his study of mosses. In order to explain his research in terms of the 19th century as well as his own intellectual [End Page 218] development, she turns to microscopy. Enthusiasm for it then was driven to some degree by the afford-ability of microscopes. Both before and after Talbot began publishing The Pencil of Nature—his well-known book on his photographic experiments—botanists were using actual specimens to illustrate their works and claiming that these were Nature's own pencil illustrating herself. Even if the results were uneven, these efforts did demonstrate how people were weighing practical problems and possible solutions in terms of botanical drawings.

For example, pressing 3-dimensional plants into 2-dimensional dried specimens provided descriptive material but it lacked accurate color and nuance. She explains that Talbot believed photography could aid observation and the exercise of judgment. June Barrow Green's essay in this section reinforces Talbot's efforts to train the mind through an analysis of his interest in mathematics. Together these two essays remind us that both botany and mathematics were seen as leisure pursuits and models for intellectual activity in other areas in the early 19th century, when a blurry line separated amateur and professional scientific inquiry (a point more fully developed in Vered Maimon's essay in the next section of the book). The final essay in this section, by Graham Smith, examines Talbot's longstanding engagement with Walter Scott's work.

Herta Wolf's essay, "Nature...


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