- William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography by Mirjam Brusius et al.
The inflated reputations of Victorian worthies have long been tempting targets for the barbs of critical observers. In 1918, Lytton Strachey memorably cut down to life-size four such “heroes” in his wry Eminent Victorians. At the mercy of Strachey’s incisive biography, Florence Nightingale was reduced from ministering angel to relentless shrew, while the idolized General Gordon was recast as a maniacally religious guerilla. Strachey’s precedent has helped to make Victorianists especially skeptical about the eminences of an epoch so adept at the construction of heroic personas. This salutary suspiciousness is particularly sensitive to the dynamics of self-fashioning and the historical legacies perpetrated by inevitably partisan historians. It has informed many recent studies of Victorian society, yielding extraordinary insights about fundamental processes that are far beyond the scope of any single actor, no matter how eminent. It is not merely these particularly exaggerated portraits of men and women whose explanatory value is suspect. Rather, it is the utility of any lone individual to the task of the historian that is now rightly in question.
Yet historians of photography have, until quite recently, remained surprisingly deferential to the accomplishments of the medium’s founding fathers. The pantheon was only seriously breached with the publication, in 1999, of Geoffrey Batchen’s Burning With Desire, a landmark study that aimed to “shift emphasis from that traditional economy of originality and priority” associated with individual pioneers toward a study of the discursive practices that enabled photography to be conceptually and metaphorically possible (Batchen 36). That shift has begun to pay valuable dividends. In William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography, we have a refreshingly heterogeneous collection of studies linked by a hero who has descended from his aerie to serve as our humble guide to the intellectual and scientific spaces of the Victorian city and country, that very terrain that Batchen had perspicuously sited as the native clime of photography.
Published on an occasion that might have invited mere hagiography—the arrival of William Henry Fox Talbot’s archives at the British Library—this is instead a most consequential volume. In their provocative introduction, Brusius and Ramalingam propose that Talbot’s photographs cannot be isolated from the rest of his (admittedly less successful) forays. They adeptly make the case that Talbot’s plentiful notebooks attest to many of the same instincts: “inscription, recording, classification, visual display, collection, and, above all, reproduction” (9–10). Discarding primarily iconographical readings of Talbot’s photographs has the advantage, the editors properly insist, of focusing instead on these images as products of the knowledge networks in which Talbot was enmeshed. [End Page 181]
In a fusillade of fascinating case studies, we are presented with a thoroughly diminished, and in many ways a far more useful, Talbot. No corner of his legendary polymathy is sacrosanct, as we read of his decidedly modest accomplishments in virtually every field of endeavour. In astute investigations of his essays in botany, mathematics, and Assyriology, among other pursuits, we see that Talbot’s Victorian contemporaries were considerably less sanguine about his achievements than his more recent biographers have been. With charitable understatement, one expert noted in 1846 that Talbot’s contributions do not “contain great additions to our knowledge” (83). His work in these fields—labours whose duration far outlasted the few years he allotted to photography—was usually competent but almost never pioneering.
These investigations shift the relationship between a rather middling scientist and the disciplines with which he engaged. As the historian of mathematics June Barrow-Green pointedly puts it, “What is significant about Talbot and mathematics is not what he achieved in mathematics but rather what mathematics achieved for him” (88). In the case of botany, too, Anne Secord asserts, “Rather than photography being the means by which to illustrate Talbot’s botanical interests, it was botany that provided a model for both observation and the exercise of visual judgment” (42). Talbot’s efforts in these and other...