- Picturing Utilitarianism: John Stuart Mill and the Invention of a Photographic Public
When, in 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot published his collection of essays and photographs titled The Pencil of Nature and so officially staked his claim to the mantle of inventor of photography, the question of who made photography first hung upon the answer to another question altogether: what exactly makes photography photography? Is it the combination of undistorted images and portability that allowed the prism-based camera lucida to displace the lens-cast shadows of the darkened room that was the camera obscura? Louis Daguerre’s technique for fixing images on metal plates? For Talbot, the plausibility of his claim to priority rested, I want to suggest, on his locating his invention of a technology for both fixing images and rendering them endlessly reproducible within a history other than the one we might retrospectively assume, a history other than that connecting one light-casting technology to the next.1
To illuminate this alternative history, which will eventually lead us to John Stuart Mill, I want to begin by considering a reflection by Talbot. On an early October day in 1833, by the shores of Lake Como, the erstwhile inventor, whose photographic experimentations drew on his training as a mathematician, chemist, and linguist, suddenly halted in frustration his efforts to take sketches by using William Hyde Wollaston’s camera lucida. “When the eye was removed from the prism—in which all looked beautiful—I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold,” Talbot recalls in his essay “A Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art.”2 In 1839, six years after the failure of the Lake Como sketches set him casting about for an alternative method for storing images of light, he announced the success of his experiments before the Royal Society, having hit upon a mixture of silver and iodine that produced negative images that could be printed repeatedly before they faded. By the time he finally published this reflection “A Brief Historical Sketch” along with a quarto of his own prints as The Pencil of Nature in 1844, Talbot no [End Page 411] longer understood himself to be presenting the wholly unfamiliar: “The term ‘Photography’ is now so well known, that an explanation of it is perhaps superfluous; yet as some persons may still be unacquainted with the art, even by name, its discovery being of very recent date, a few words may be looked for of general explanation.” For Talbot, photography was not simply a new technology. It had become a discourse as well. Any “explanation” he might offer of photography’s meaning needed to take account of the term’s public proliferation and reception, as well as its technical details. Discursive and technological histories join here. Nestling his “Brief Historical Sketch” within his Pencil, Talbot redoubles his title’s metaphor and so infuses it with a new descriptive instability in what was the world’s first volume to bring together photos and text. His pencil both traces images of light and details the chemical experiments leading to the technology of photographic storage. Talbot thus creates an expansive rubric that brings together drawing and writing as a unified representational medium born of a common technological history.
To appreciate Talbot’s claim to innovation and, more significantly, to understand the social and political possibilities made available by his new technology, we need to examine the contours of the history constituted by this expansive rubric: we need to consider photography, as I am arguing Talbot himself does, as an innovation within a history of writing. Nor does Talbot confine his interest in interjecting photography into a history of writing/ drawing to a metaphorical register: Talbot’s oldest surviving photograph, dated 20 June 1835, is an image of his own handwriting—the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet.3 By figuring a Nature wielding its own pencil so as to represent what it sees of itself, Talbot presents us with what has become the most familiar account of photography’s revolutionariness: the collapse of seeing and storing that would seem to enable, as if by magic, the...