The Magic Mirror

© Philip Jessup

GAZE

LANDSCAPE INTO PHOTOGRAPHy

 
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Sept 17

HENRY TALBOT’S MAGIC MIRROR

Birth of photography inspires the first landscape images

The birth of photography was inspired by nature! In this inaugural post I provide — bear with me — some historical context.

Henry Talbot, the English gentleman scientist who invented the negative-to-positive photographic process, authored a poem describing the preservation of visual images in a device that could record and show both the light and dark side of nature. He penned the poem The Magic Mirror in 1830 perhaps inspired by several English scientists who had experimented with various chemical processes to make permanent images on paper using a camera obscura.

In the poem, Bertha ignores her father’s admonition to gaze into the Fatal Glass, which stores visual secrets about how the castle she lives in was built in one day. When she looks into the Glass, it magically streams images:

What show’d the Mirror? In an azure sky
The Sun was shining, calm and brilliantly.
And on a sweet Vale he pour’d his beam
As ever smiled in youthful poet’s dream
With murmur soft, a hundred mazy rills
In silver tracks meander’d down the hills
And fed a crystal Lake whose gentle shore
Was grassy bank with dark woods shadow’ o’er.

The Glass also shows her the dark side of nature: natural disasters. Scared, she flees from the castle, barely escaping a volcanic eruption that buries it in lava. A fitting Romantic conclusion!

In 1833, Talbot and Constance Mundy married, and they enjoyed an extended honeymoon to Bellagio and Lake Como, Italy. As he explained ten years later in the introduction to his ground breaking photography book, The Pencil of Nature, Talbot became frustrated watching his wife Constance sketch the beautiful lakeside scenery. He had brought a Camera Lucida, a fancy drawing contraption, but sketches he made on this device were inferior by comparison.

 
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Talbot reflected: “. . .  on the inimitable beauty of the picture of nature’s painting which the glass lens of the Camera throws upon the paper in its focus — fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away . . . the idea occurred to me . . . how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper.” Thus film photography as we know it today was conceived in an idyllic landscape alongside a serene lake cradled by majestic pre-alpine mountains.

Just two years later Talbot succeeded in making his first permanent image, a picture of an oriel window at Lacock Abbey, his family’s estate. Meanwhile, in France Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, a French diorama artist, was developing a very different process for etching images onto a metal plate.

In the month of January, 1839, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre and Henry Talbot both presented to their nation’s respective science academies papers describing different technologies for fixing an image obtained from a camera obscura on copper (Daguerre) and paper (Talbot).

 
 Portrait of Henry Talbot

Portrait of Henry Talbot

 

Daguerreotypes astounded observers with their detail, luminance, and holographic qualities. (They still do today!) Regrettably, however, the process yielded only one original. Talbot’s calotype, however, enabled multiple copies, but the image was soft due to the uneven surface of paper used as a negative.

Englishman Frederick Scott Archer improved Talbot’s approach by substituting glass for paper and creating a collodion solution of silver nitrate that would adhere to the glass negative. Thanks to the smooth surface of the glass, he approached the detail of daguerreotypes while retaining the ability of calotypes to reproduce.

We can thank the French and Archer himself for the rapid spread of these inventions. The French government offered a generous pension to Daguerre in exchange for making daguerreotypes patent-free, property of the world. Meanwhile, Archer published details of his collodion process in1851 without patenting it. Thus, he gifted his invention to the world before dying impoverished. The collodion process, a prelude to film’s emulsions, dominated photography for a quarter century while the dageurreotype fell out of fashion.

 William Henry Fox Talbot,  Trees and Reflections  (ca. 1843)

William Henry Fox Talbot, Trees and Reflections (ca. 1843)

Early photographers focused on portraits, buildings, and quiet urban scenes where the long exposure times would not compromise the resolution of the image. Devices were even invented that would keep the portrait subject’s head and neck steady during long, tiring studio shoots. Once the technologies improved and exposure times shortened significantly, landscapes became more possible and popular as a subject, especially stereoscopic views of lakes and mountains like those Talbot labored to draw at Lake Como.

The American continent with its broad expanses of wilderness and natural wonders like Niagara Falls was even better suited than England or the Continent for nurturing landscape photographers. Dr. Samuel A. Bemis, a Boston dentist, may have created the first landscape photo. On vacation in New Hampshire in the summer 1840, he produced a memorable daguerreotype of a rustic barn nestled in the White Mountains (photo at the top of this post).

 Platt D. Babbitt,  Scene at Niagara  (1848)

Platt D. Babbitt, Scene at Niagara (1848)

George Platt Babbitt was one of the first professionals to photograph tourists viewing the Niagara Falls. The Catholic Church had designated the Falls as a “pilgrim shrine” to showcase God’s majesty. Babbitt would make his daguerreotypes on a pavilion at popular Prospect Point, positioning the camera behind unsuspecting subjects, their backs profiled against the foam. He would then approach the subjects and sell them daguerreotypes on the spot.

It’s not too different today, if you are a tourist in a foreign land. No doubt crafty photographers have ambushed you while you stand in front of and admire a cathedral. Thus commerce, as well as innovation, drove the spread of photography innovations worldwide. And landscapes, once technology permitted much shorter exposures, paved the way with a public that craved images of natural scenes like those they saw in paintings hanging in museums or the homes of merchants and aristocrats, but could not afford.

My next post: How I came to landscape photography.



SOURCES:

Index photo: Dr. Samuel A. Bemis, View of a Barn in New Hampshire (1840), The J. Paul Getty Museum, image via the Google Art Project

Photo: John Moffat, photographer, Portrait of William Henry Fox Turner (1864), George Eastman Museum

Photo: William Henry Fox Turner, photographer, Trees and Reflections, Lacock Abbey (1843), The Met

Photo: Platt D. Babbitt, Scene at Niagara Falls (1848), The J. Paul Getty Museum

Michael Gray, et. al., First Photographs: William Henry Fox Talbot and the Birth of Photography, Powerhouse Books, New York  in association with the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London (1844) via The Guttenburg Project

Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, Photography, In Beaumont Newhall, Editor, Photography: Essays and Images, London (1980)

Camera Lucida, artist unknown, illustration from the Scientific American Supplement, January 11, 1879, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26091668


 
 
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PHILIP JESSUP

Nature inspires us because it is sublime. It puts self into perspective. We are part of something very big. But today nature is vanishing. Rapidly. I’ve started this blog to explore how painters and photographers, including myself, have expressed their love of nature in their art. Maybe what we do as photographers can lead to actions that help shift the tide.

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