Saturday, March 8, 2014

On the Invention of Photography

IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, it became fashionable to tour the English countryside, visiting castles, ruined abbeys, and picturesque landscapes. Those who had the ability would often sketch the vistas as a memento.

William Gilpin, in his essays on the picturesque, defined a picturesque landscape as one which was a good subject for a drawing or a painting — and so his observations are relevant to contemporary photographers.

Illustration from Gilpin’s Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; and On Sketching Landscape: to which is Added a Poem, On Landscape Painting.

But not everyone is trained in drawing. As picturesque travel became more popular, new inventions such as the camera lucida helped novices sketch a landscape with more accuracy, while the Claude glass darkened and abstracted the scene, giving it a more painterly quality.

W. Henry Fox Talbot was in Italy on such a picturesque tour, and here he describes his experiences:
One of the first days of the month of October 1833, I was amusing myself on the lovely shores of the Lake of Como, in Italy, taking sketches with Wollaston's Camera Lucida, or rather I should say, attempting to take them: but with the smallest possible amount of success. For when the eye was removed from the prism—in which all looked beautiful—I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold.

After various fruitless attempts, I laid aside the instrument and came to the conclusion, that its use required a previous knowledge of drawing, which unfortunately I did not possess.

I then thought of trying again a method which I had tried many years before. This method was, to take a Camera Obscura, and to throw the image of the objects on a piece of transparent tracing paper laid on a pane of glass in the focus of the instrument. On this paper the objects are distinctly seen, and can be traced on it with a pencil with some degree of accuracy, though not without much time and trouble.

I had tried this simple method during former visits to Italy in 1823 and 1824, but found it in practice somewhat difficult to manage, because the pressure of the hand and pencil upon the paper tends to shake and displace the instrument (insecurely fixed, in all probability, while taking a hasty sketch by a roadside, or out of an inn window); and if the instrument is once deranged, it is most difficult to get it back again, so as to point truly in its former direction.

Besides which, there is another objection, namely, that it baffles the skill and patience of the amateur to trace all the minute details visible on the paper; so that, in fact, he carries away with him little beyond a mere souvenir of the scene—which, however, certainly has its value when looked back to, in long after years.

Such, then, was the method which I proposed to try again, and to endeavour, as before, to trace with my pencil the outlines of the scenery depicted on the paper. And this led me to reflect on the inimitable beauty of the pictures 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.

It was during these thoughts that 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!

— from The Pencil of Nature, by William Henry Fox Talbot
Talbot is credited as one of the inventors of photography.

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