The Pencil of Nature

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Yesterday I had the rare opportunity to leaf through an original copy of William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1844 book The Pencil of Nature, the first book ever to contain photographs.

These are actual photographic prints made by Talbot himself, the man who invented the calotype negative process. These prints were made on paper coated by Talbot and his assistants, and contact-printed in the sunlight from the calotype paper negatives that he shot in-camera (this was within a few years of what is generally considered the invention of practical photography – at about the same time that Daguerre invented the daguerreotype, which only produced a one-of-a-kind image on glass, while Talbot’s paper negative allowed for multiple prints to be made from the negative – essentially introducing the negative-positive photographic process used for the next 150 years).

I don’t want to go into too much technical detail, but you can easily find all the detail you want online, as this is an important piece of photographic history. I believe these prints are “salted paper prints”, in which the paper is sensitized with silver chloride, requiring long exposures in contact with the negative under sunlight.  The negative shot in camera was a calotype (also called talbotype), which required relatively short exposures to produce a latent image on the translucent paper, that would then be chemically developed to bring out the full image.

A London publisher produced this book in six editions, in which Talbot’s actual photographic prints are glued into place on the pages. The six editions were sold separately, and as was apparently the custom at the time, the owner would have the editions bound together into a single book. The Elmer Andersen Library for Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Minnesota has a bound copy of volumes 1 and 2, containing a total of 12 photographs (the 24 total photographs were split into six volumes – it is believed that there are only about 15 complete copies of this book still in existence). It is clear that these two volumes were bound together into one book, although little of the binding remains intact today. The cover for these two volumes is not large enough to accommodate the other volumes, so the original owner must have only purchased the first two, or decided to have them bound separately for some reason.

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Thanks to my friend Matt Newberry arranging for us to view this, I got to sit with him and browse through these very fragile pages containing some of the first photographs ever made. It seemed a bit crazy that we were able to be viewing Talbot’s actual prints so close-up and intimately.

Though the prints are severely faded, they are still sharp and show amazing detail. They’re beautiful.  It’s surprising that prints from such an early experiment in photography still look this good 172 years later.

My favorite image in these two volumes is probably PLATE X. THE HAYSTACK, shown at the top of this post.

Other personal favorites are PLATE II. VIEW OF THE BOULEVARDS AT PARIS, and PLATE VI. THE OPEN DOOR, below.

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Photography was so new to people in 1844 that he included a slipped-in “Notice to the Reader” that reads:

The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.

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In the photo below I’m holding an original calotype paper negative (slipped in a plastic sleeve) believed to be taken by Talbot’s assistant Nicolaas Henneman sometime between 1843 and 1848. More info about this negative here

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The book is readily available online to read and see scanned images of the photos.  I highly recommend you give it a read.  Talbot seemed to foresee the future of photography both in it’s many practical uses and as a form of art.

The book can be read in full here:
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/33447/33447-h/33447-h.html

More information:

http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/Feb2007.html

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/267022

Today Matt emailed me this photo below, showing Talbot and assistants contact-printing photos in the sun.  Perhaps the prints that we just saw were printed in these very frames.

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