William Henry Fox Talbot photographs shown for the first time ever in Pittsburgh
William Henry Fox Talbot captured moments.
Known as a true “gentleman scientist” of the Victorian period, Talbot combined his knowledge of chemistry, mathematics and optics, with his interest in art, botany and the classics to invent the paper-based photography that dominated the field for most of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Due to the fragile nature of the photographs, exhibitions of Talbot's work are rare.
Photo lovers get the chance to see “William Henry Fox Talbot and the Promise of Photography” on display through Feb. 11 at the Scaife Gallery One of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland.
“Talbot was a genius and he could have done anything he wanted to do,” says Dan Leers, curator of photography at the museum, who organized the exhibit. “He chose photography. He figured out the process of making photos and making copies of photos. He was fascinated with the sharing of images.”
This collection is the largest U.S. exhibit of Talbot's photography in the last 15 years, featuring 31 works by Talbot and his circle — some as old as 175 years old.
Eleven photos are recent gifts to the museum's collection and five additional are promised gifts. This will be the first time the exhibit will be on view in Pittsburgh.
The exhibit encompasses shots from Paris, London and Scotland.
In 1841, Talbot patented the “calotype” process, a direct precursor to the positive and negative in darkroom photography. The calotype allowed for picture-making in low-light conditions and with shorter exposure times, meaning that interiors and portraits were possible.
Talbot relished this expanded subject matter, making photographs of family and friends around his Lacock Abbey estate, located in Wiltshire, England, about 100 miles west of London. Eventually, he took his equipment to other parts of Europe.
The exhibit is accompanied by a book that serves as a primer on the work, featuring an introductory essay by curator Leers and thematic groupings by noted Talbot scholar Larry Schaaf. With its luminous reproductions of Talbot's fragile works, this publication demonstrates that early photography required a blend of magic-making and innovation.
The exhibit was inspired by a gift from William Talbott Hillman. Some of the works in the exhibit are on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Schaaf, director William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonne, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, says the display is beautifully arranged in an appropriate gallery and represents a good cross-section of Talbot's achievements.
“I couldn't help notice when I was there that the visitors wound up lingering much longer than expected in an exhibition of works that most had probably never considered,” Schaaf says. “There was frequent criss-crossing of the gallery as people went back to compare a photograph that they had seen earlier.”
The aspect of the collection that is most exciting to Schaaf is Hillman's acquisition of some of the very earliest and very rarest of Talbot's work.
“It is nearly miraculous that these have survived for more than 175 years and that they ‘bring back the sunshine of yesterday' (as one of Talbot's contemporary's put it),” Schaaf says. “It takes a special collector to acquire and preserve such delicate and unique originals.”
Beyond that, Hillman's foundation made possible the establishment of an international web-based resource, the William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonne, Schaaf says. This is bringing together the 25,000 Talbot negatives and prints surviving worldwide.
Talbot was fascinated with the thought of sharing the images, which are arranged in the gallery in two main groups and run chronologically. Each piece is framed in anti-UV glass and under specific lighting levels. One section has eight facsimiles because the originals are too delicate, but they are actually in the museum's storage. They are all quite fragile, but one has a velvet covering that can be lifted to view, but helps keep additional light out.
Magnifying glasses are available for guests who want to get an up-and-close view.
“You can see every little detail in his work,” Leers says. “He was obsessed with detail and when you see his work you actually feel a connection to being there with him.”
As for the advancement in digital images, Leers says he believes Talbot would “be excited and similarly vexed by digital images.”
This is a guy who didn't have flash available to him and would build shelves outside to take pictures in natural light. He would like that he could share images with everyone like we do through social media or a click of a button on our smart phones, Leers says.
“It's exciting to be presenting Talbot photographs for the first time ever in Pittsburgh, and it's significant that this is the largest Talbot exhibition in the U.S. in years,” Leers says. “Photography as we knew it up until the digital revolution was the result of his inventions, and it is inspiring to see so many works that look as fresh and relevant today as they did 175 years ago when they were made.”