November 21: Today in 1840 Henry Fox Talbot, one of the inventors of our medium, photographed an artwork, a bust of Venus that he owned. Coincidentally, this is the eightieth anniversary of the birth of French photography critic, photographer and creative writer Denis Roche.
Thomas Wedgwood and other potential inventors of photography had been cheated of success by the fact that after they had made their images the action of light would continue until their pictures vanished…
Henry Fox Talbot sensitised his papers with silver chloride and in 1834 briefly employed potassium iodide as a fixer because it converted the remaining silver chloride into relatively insensitive silver iodide.
In the ‘glorious summer’ of 1835 as he experienced the first exhilarating successes with his paper negative, he had made the observation that a strong solution of common table salt made silver chloride fairly insensitive to light. In early 1839, he found that potassium bromide made a useful conversion into insensitive silver bromide. Salt, iodide and to some extent bromide all stabilised the photographic material as the silver salts remaining were rendered minimaly light sensitivity.
Each of these chemicals imparted a characteristic colour to his photographic prints or negative. Sodium chloride yielded a lavender-hued negative or print and potassium iodide stained the paper yellow. The demure little Venus fell victim to his experiments with the latter.
Sir John Herschel had experimented with sodium thiosulphate in 1819. Though he did not discover the chemical, he observed its effect on the compounds of silver, which it dissolved ‘as easily as water dissolves sugar’. Hearing of the advent of photography two decades later, he knew that remnant light-sensitive salts of silver, the Achilles Heel of early photography, could be removed after exposure using his ‘hypo’.
Daguerre was quick to take up his suggestion, but strangely Talbot was reluctant even though Herschel had suggested it to him by February 1839. Talbot stubbornly preferred potassium bromide to fix his new calotype negative process at the end of 1840 and only in 1842 had he accepted Herschel’s hypo for fixing his prints, finding that unlike his other ‘fixers’ hypo produced a pleasant and neutral darker brown.
The Venus was a favourite subject and appears in a number of other Fox Talbot images.
You can gauge her size (about the height of a book) as she is depicted here amongst other ornaments and artworks, copies of Roman and other classical works, on a bookshelf he had carried from his residence, Lacock Abbey, into the stronger light of the courtyard; you can see the walls of the cloister ‘garth’ appearing over the top of the shelves.
The photographer was a keen collector of artworks and amongst the holdings of Lacock Abbey are three paintings of Venus. All are copies, after originals by van Haarlem, Correggio and Rubens made by later painters, which was then the only way that reproductions of paintings could be made and distributed, other than prints often made by the original artist or by journeymen engravers.
Talbot’s interest in these artworks was scholarly. A polymath, he achieved international recognition for mathematical contributions as well as his translations of Assyrian texts. In his many publications he addressed his research on antique busts and sculptures, many of which he collected, and his 1846 publication The Talbotype Applied to Hieroglyphics reproduced a photograph of an hieroglyphic text, reflecting his antiquarian interests. Indeed he was a leading translator of cuniform scripts then being unearthed. Thomas Inman notes in his Ancient Pagan and Modern Christian Symbolism, first published in 1869, that;
Mr. Fox Talbot has lately given the translation of an Egyptian poem, more than three thousand years old, and having for its subject the decent of Ishtar into Hades. To this region of darkness and death the goddess goes in search of her beloved Osiris, or Tammuz. This Ishtar is identical with the Assyrian female in the celestial quartette, the later Phoenician Astarte, ‘The Queen of Heaven with crescent horns,’ the moon-goddess, also with the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus; and the Egyptian legend reappears in the west as the mourning of Venus for the loss of Adonis.
Reproducibility was prime feature of the negative process he had invented and its capacity for making multiple copies was something the daguerreotype could not do. In particular, Fox Talbot was fascinated with art reproduction and his The Pencil of Nature was the first book to contain photographic illustrations. This had nascent but revolutionary implications for the mass consumption of artworks. In the book he notes;
FROM the specimen here given it is sufficiently manifest, that the whole cabinet of a Virtuoso and collector of old China might be depicted on paper in little more time than it would take him to make a written inventory describing it in the usual way. The more strange and fantastic the forms of his old teapots, the more advantage in having their pictures given instead of their descriptions.
And should a thief afterwards purloin the treasures — if the mute testimony of the picture were to be produced against him in court — it would certainly be evidence of a novel kind; but what the judge and jury might say to it, is a matter which I leave to the speculation of those who possess legal acumen.
The articles represented on this plate are numerous: but, however numerous the objects — however complicated the arrangement — the Camera depicts them all at once.
‘The Camera depicts them all at once’…starting 2007, more than 160 years later, Hiroshi Sugimoto began his series Photogenic Drawings made by photographing original negatives by William Henry Fox Talbot which he acquired as an avid art collector, and others at the Getty Museum, the earliest photographs in the collection, including one of the Venus sculpture. Sugimoto operates on Fox Talbot’s negatives just as the copyists did on artworks owned by the inventor of the calotype. He digitally copies and enlarges the images to the point where the paper grain of the calotype negatives is visible, and converts Fox Talbot’s negatives to positive prints nearly a metre tall, 10 times the size of the original, coloured to resemble the often intense hues of the original. The thumbprint and chemical stain left by Fox Talbot or his assistant are left unretouched on the positive print of the yellow Venus above.
The exhibition Hiroshi Sugimoto: Past Tense was on view February 4–June 8, 2014 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center. “Negatives predating any reliable method of fixing the image are always in danger of changing if exposed to the slightest light,” said Sugimoto of this project. “I, however, had to take that risk to return to the very origins of photography and see those first positive images for myself. With fear and trepidation, I set about this task like an archaeological explorer excavating an ancient dynastic tomb.”
For Sugimoto, “A photographer never makes an actual subject; they just steal the image from the world.”
Another ‘archaeological explorer excavating an ancient dynastic tomb’ is Denis Roche, born on this day in 1937 in Paris. Roche was a photographer and at the same time a photography critic as well as a creative writer. He died last year on the 2nd of September.
One can gauge that his position on photography is, like mine, diametrically opposed to that of Sugimoto from his critique of this image Four Heads, Macy’s Thanksgiving Party, Broadway & 33rd, New York 1954 by one of my favourite photographers, William Klein, which featured on the May 1981 cover of ARTFORUM magazine, back in that publication’s heyday , where Max Kozloff, who is easily the most approachable of writers on photography, wrote William Klein and the Radioactive Fifties.
Klein’s photograph is a prime example of his aggressively ‘in-your-face’ approach to street photography. Judging by its distortion I can only make an educated guess that it comes from the right hand side of a 35mm frame shot on a 21mm lens or wider. Alternatively, since Klein experimented with print manipulation, he may have tilted his easel in printing the image to generate the distortion. Roche has no time for such speculation:
La photographie est une méditation instantanée: plus ou moins concentrée, au point d’étre perçue comme une déflagration du réel : plus ou mins distendue, abandonnée alors aux accessits de ce réel – ou aura compris que je n’accordais le mot ‘réel’ qu’a ce qui est montré ou désignée par la photographie, quitte a ce que ce ‘montré’ passe au second plan, la désignation a la trappe aussi, et ainsi de suite.
…which I dare to translate as…
Photography is an instantaneous meditation: more or less concentrated, to the point of being perceived as a blowing up of the real: more or less distended, abandoned then to the second class of this reality – you will have understood that I did not employ the word ‘real’ to refer to what is shown or designated by the photograph, even if this “shown” passes to the second plane, the description drops down the hatch also, and so on.
Where Roche writes about reproduction in photography, he takes as an example the very image that graces some copies of Susan Sontag’s On Photography:
Réfléchissez bien: il ne peut y avoir de pléonasme en photo, car une photographie, quelle qu’elle soit, parle deja deux fois du temps, une pour dire qu’elle s’en saisit et une autre pour dire qu’il est passé ; et il ne peut y avoir non plus en elle de trompe-l’oeil. Elle est et sera toujours la mise en abîme par excellence; elle est l’esprit qui regard l’abime, elle est une morceau de l’abime tranche net, avec quatre angles droits terriblement coupants
“Think carefully:” he says, “there can be no redundancy in photography, for a photograph, whatever it is, already speaks twice of time, once to seize it and another to say that it has passed ; And there can be no trompe-l’oeil in it either; it is and will always be the mise en abyme par excellence; It is the mind that looks at the abyss, it is a piece of the abyss cut clear, with four right angles cut terribly sharp.”
Roche took the above photo while having lunch at “The Sphinx House,” a cafeteria catering to tourists outside Cairo whose walls are adorned with murals representing the pyramids and the Sphinx (themselves artwork enlargements of prior examples), while its large bay windows face the Giza plateau and allow diners to gaze directly at the real thing. Roche’s photograph reflects upon this curious doubling:
So, in the same image, yes, in the same picture, I have the real pyramids and the real Sphinx, the fake pyramids and the fake sphinx, but through an ironic twist (one might say that reality is being playful and is playing me), I only capture in the picture the real pyramids and the real Sphinx as a falsified form of their reflection in the window, while the fake pyramids and the fake Sphinx appear as a direct vision through the window pane?
Fake and real clearly operate also in the images of Fox Talbot and Sugimoto (the latter never lets us take them for granted) but what distinguishes Roche’s reason for making photographs is this ‘playfulness’, the illusion and mystery of photographs (for instance in their ‘flattening onto one plane of reflection and the direct view), that breaks through any attempt at the redundancy of ‘copying’ that is meant to be, for Sugimoto, the essence of the medium; ultimately a mere process of selection and collection.
After 1970, Roche increasingly engages the visual in his fiction so that photography and literature become an inseparable ensemble, as in Dans la maison du Sphinx, published in 1992, which reflects on the materiality of photography (as act of creation and as final printed product) and its relationship to the real, in which the photograph becomes a riddle (like that of the Sphinx) that permits entry to a labyrinthine abyss.
Roche tests this by returning to photograph the same scene…
In his formal experimentation, where cross-references – or photolalies as he called them – between images taken from one year to another Roche replaces Roland Barthes famous La Chambre Claire (‘Camera Lucida’) with ‘la chambre blanche’, the laboratory, designated the ‘white room’ in French.