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William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877)
A Scene in a Library
Plate 8 from: The Pencil of Nature
England, Wiltshire, Lacock Abbey, 1843
Calotype (saltprint from paper negative), mounted on paper, numbered „8”, 13 x 17,9 cm

The image shows two shelves filled with books and magazines on natural sciences and the humanities, such as The Philosophical Magazine, Botanische Schriften, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, Poetae Minores Graeci and Lanzi's Storia pittorica dell'Italia. The selection of books is drawn from William Henry Fox Talbot’s private library. The display was not photographed inside the library. The tomes were arranged outdoors and are generally seen as an intellectual self portrait of this English private scholar. Before he published his photographic inventions in 1839, he was already a scientifically published author in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, linguistics, archaeology, botany, physics and chemistry.

Without doubt Talbot’s most consequential accomplishment was the discovery of the positive-negative-process, patented in 1841 under the name of the Calotype. It was the precondition for the reproduction of photographic images on paper. Between the years of 1844 and 1846 Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature was published in six parts by a London based publishing house. The image at hand is plate 8 of 24. This was the first book ever illustrated with photographs. Every copy had salted paper prints of the images glued into its pages (more practical solutions for print reproduction would take time to develop). In the text of the book Talbot tried to emphasise the specific characteristics of the new medium and the bandwidth of its application spectrum.

„A Scene of a Library” can be compared to plate 3 and 4, two still lives with groups of objects made from glass and china illustrating the reflection of light on different materials. The graphic recording and comparative depiction of similar objects would play an influential role in photography. The image of the library seems like a symbol for the influence photography would have on science and image culture, especially in the area of reproduction for print media. In the text accompanying the photograph, Talbot underlines the capacity of photography to capture the things invisible to the eye and he ends highlighting the conclusiveness of printed matter.

Marie Röbl, © WestLicht

Lit.: Larry J. Schaaf, The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot, Princeton University Press 2000, p. 191; Hubertus von Amelunxen, Die aufgehobene Zeit. Die Erfindung der Photographie durch William Henry Fox Talbot, Berlin 1989, p. 31.