November 28: Focus

November 28: On this date in 1844 Henry Fox Talbot made this photograph of some of his books on a shelf. In October Talbot had discovered the powers of chemical development on the latent image in his new process, the calotype (known to his friends as the Talbotype). Previously, making a ‘photogenic drawing’ took minutes or tens of minutes. Times were now reduced to seconds.

Henry Fox Talbot Detail of books at Lacock Abbey, 28 November 1840

What is extraordinary about this image is its level of magnification which is close to 1:1 which as any experienced photographer would be aware adds complexity. Focussing becomes critical. With unforgivingly minimal depth of field, Talbot’s choice of subject for this is wise; the book spines form a relatively flat plane. At 1:1 magnification, to make the image the same size as the subject, as here, in order to be sharp the lens will be extended to twice the focal length; a lens or bellows extension twice what it is at infinity. Talbot’s cameras were a box sliding inside another for focus so this photograph may have required adjustment of the instrument’s construction. The image circle thrown by the lens on the inside of the camera when it is extended this much is four times as large in area as when focused at infinity. Since it is spread over four times the area, the image is dimmer and 1/4 as bright. To compensate, the image is exposed for 4x as long, or the lens opened up two stops.

Four years later he makes Scene in a Library, which he published in The Pencil of Nature. This shows whole shelves of books, sharply defined. Fabulous as it is, and familiar to many, the 28 November photograph is even more of an accomplishment that challenges his technology.

Henry Fox Talbot Scene in a Library, the same image as plate VIII in The Pencil of Nature, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005.100.172; Schaaf 18

In a forest we discover Talbot’s Scene in a Library incongruously suspended on the front of a tree! What are we to make of this?

Victor Schrager (2015) Muse #19, 2015 from Into The Woods: Woodwork + Muse

Talbot’s famous picture is accompanied by a brush drawing by Phillip Guston, also depicting a book, in his Crumbesque style. Schrager’s photograph is soft on the right hand side and sharp, in places, on the left, with the tree acting as the fulcrum, though the line of focus runs unevenly up the trunk, evidence that this manipulation of focus is done in camera and not with an Instagram filter or Photoshop post-processing.

While Talbot’s aim was sharpness, with books acting as a test subject, Victor Schrager’s purpose is more complex. He is using a large format camera with bellows, an improvement on Tabot’s camera which was a box sliding in a box. The bellows allow the camera standards, separately holding lens board and ground glass, to be twisted and offset in relation to each other in movements known as swings, tilts and shifts.

In Muse #19 Schrager swings the front standard holding the lens to the right (the image is upside-down in the ground glass, which takes getting used to) and slightly tilts it forward. The effect is to resolve a ‘shaft’ of focus through the two images the photographer has suspended on the trees, then on into the far distance into a patch of blue sky between the trees at top left. That corner of the image is darkened as a result of the extreme offset of the lens axis so that the very edge of blackness surrounding the image circle intrudes into the film area. Small details are caught up in the shifts of focus like the thin twig and suspended dead leaves above the Guston work, and the way the dappled light on the top right hand corner of the Talbot merges with the out of focus circles of light between leaves in the distance, appearing to exist on the same plane.

James McArdle (1990) Accomplices. Silver gelatin print.

I have used the view camera to similar effect in an extended series on human relationships between couples and families, co-workers and school friends. For me, ‘drawing’ with focus, as the view camera permits, was a means of describing these relationships by connecting the individuals with each other and surroundings familiar to them.


For an explanation as to why Schrager suspends these images in the forest one must turn to his history. He has produced collages of found materials since the late 1980s, mostly crowded ‘all-over’ compositions. These I find not entirely successful; it is fascinating to watch as his work develops into the distinctive personal vision it now represents.

Victor Schrager (1980) Olympia

More recently he has turned to colour as a means of driving his compositions, which he compares to music making:

Apropos of the Composition as Explanation photographs, the books are as necessary and irrelevant as Morandi’s pitchers, Stieglitz’s clouds, Cézanne’s fruit, Weston’s peppers, or Penn’s frozen food. The real purpose in making these pictures is addressing the box of space that sits in front of me, and seeing if it is once again possible to pull a compelling picture out of it; again and again, until the activity transcends the environment in which it takes place. Everything is surrendered to the visual. Elements are placed where they are most urgently needed. There is a horizon. There is gravity. Shadows are tangible. There is no one else in the room.

63-from-composition-as-explanation-2003Books, the subject matter of his solo and group exhibitions since 2008, are made more abstract so that their content becomes less important than their colour. Just as rectilinearity and sharpness were important to Fox Talbot so is unsharpness in Schrager’s image-making.

That the book represents the encapsulation and ownership of knowledge inevitably is a consideration for both photographers. Talbot wrote about the way photographs might be used as evidence of ownership and amongst his images representing collections of his objects, books figure prominently.

The White Room 2009.jpg
Installation shot, The White Room, exhibition by Victor Schrager at Edwynn Houk.

Schrager’s upcoming Into the Woods exhibition at Edwynn Houk Gallery 745 Fifth Avenue NYC from December 1, 2016 – January 14, 2017 opens up many of these books; we are given entree into books’ contents, individual pages, that fascinate or provoke the artist. They are represented amongst other images in which the blank saturated colours of his The White Room exhibition of early 2009 (also at Houk) reappear in this new setting. Here he has taken the bold step of abandoning the studio, the white room or ‘the box of space’, for the forest, a less biddable environment and one in which he contends not only with extremes of natural lighting but also deeper space.

Victor Scrager (2015 ) Woodwork #20

Both Talbot and Schrager have published books; The Pencil of Nature, containing hand printed calotypes by Talbot, was the first photography book, while amongst Schrager’s publications is The Bird Hand Book  (2001 Graphis Inc.) which was a collaboration with A. S. Byatt illustrated with his black and white photographs of a series of birds held in a female hand (or arm, in the case of the pelican) protruding from the backcloth. Byatt’s The Thing in the Forest is the most chilling and unforgettable short story I’ve read.


Despite Schrager’s protestations then, I react to this new work as being much more than about composition, even though the show is evenly leavened with clever tromps-l’oeuil employing solid colour (as in The White Room exhibition) it is his interaction with a natural space that confirms my opinion; the setting of forest and its seasons is alien to the images set within it…or upon it, and this juxtaposition of Nature and intellect prompts a reevaluation of human wisdom.

In some cases he applies the same rectilinearity as does Talbot, ordering the rectangles of pages from books and swatches of colour within the right angles of the picture frame and parallel with the picture plane. However, two of the images break this with colour swatches set at an angle. In Woodwork #2, 2014 a panel striped with blue and green wavy stripes of equal tonality is set at an angle so that the stripes set up a jarring shimmer, but in every image, manipulations of focus perform the same role; to break into the picture plane and to submerge the readable content with the surfeit of nature. This stereoscope view inserted into the Spring forest is rewarding to view in 3D which doubles the foreground sapling and somehow transforms the drapes behind the three graces into tree trunks.

Victor Schrager (2015) Muse #15

I regret reading the blurb on the Edwynn Houk Gallery website; “He chooses illustrations that are not only universal subjects such as books, animals, and portraits but also figures which add an additional layer of interest and experience as the details unfold”. Wherever the deathlesss phrase ‘to add interest’ (or any variation) is used one becomes aware that either the writer has no understanding of the work and is struggling for words, or the artist thus described is a complete charlatan. Can one imagine tramping about in the snow tacking pages from books to trees to stand shivering while operating one’s view camera believing it would be ‘adding interest’ to one’s photography? In this case, I think not. Fire your copywriter Edwynn Houk!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.