Artwork: Lady Elisabeth Feilding as Paolina Borghese, 20 April 1842. National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library.
In the course of his lifetime, British scientist and inventory William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) developed the process for drawing with light, inventing the very first process for creating photographic images in 1834, which was revealed to the public in 1839. Considered one of the greatest polymaths of the Victorian age, his “salted paper” and calotype processes earned him the name of “father of photography.”
Over the course of his life, Talbot produced 4,500 unique images that exist today as 25,000 negatives and prints. Over the course of four decades, Professor Larry J. Schaaf examined and organized the Talbot Catalogue Raisonné, an online catalogue of work available for study and use. The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford officially launched the Talbot Catalogue Raisonné last week with the first 1,000 images now available to the public. The full catalogue will be online by 2018, with updates made weekly in the interim. giving the world an incredible look at the Victorian age.
Professor Schaaf, the Project Director, explains, “There has been nothing like this before in the history of photography. [The catalogue] will help unlock the enormous artistic, documentary and technical information embodied in these images and allow researchers to find out even more about these works.”
The works, drawn from the British Library, National Media Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution, among other venues, include cityscapes of Oxford, Paris, and London; photographs taken on the grounds of Lacock Abbey, the Talbot family home in Wiltshire; the artist’s most famous images including “The Open Door” and “The Haystack,” and photographs of his family and colleagues.
The Talbot Catalogue Raisonné is remarkable for the fact that is presents both the negatives and the prints made from them. This is critical since each negative and print was made by hand and is unique, allowing users to connect a negative held in the Smithsonian with the salt prints held at the British Library.
Talbot was a scientist turned artist, who developed a new way of seeing and documenting the world. In the early decades of the Industrial Revolution, Talbot used technology as a means to entering a realm where few had gone before—so enduring were its methods for creating work. But his curiosity would not be satisfied until he found the solution to the questions that captured his imagination.
In 1839, Talbot observed, “The most transitory of things, a shadow, the proverbial emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary, may be fettered by the spells of our ‘natural magic’, and may be fixed forever in the position which seemed only destined for a single instant to occupy… Such is the fact, that we may receive on paper the fleeting shadow, arrest it there and in the space of a single minute fix it there so firmly as to be no more capable of change.”
Indeed, Talbot laid the blueprint for what has become one of the greatest revolutions of our time. With the transformation of photography from film to digital, Talbot’s dream of fixing a moment of time for posterity is now available to billions of people around the world. Once can only imagine how he would marvel at what has become of his work, just as we can marvel at his earliest experiments with drawing light.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.