In January 1839 William Henry Fox Talbot, a British polymath equally adept at astronomy, chemistry, Egyptology, and philology, received the astounding news that a Frenchman, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, had discovered a means of fixing images that could be seen in the back of a camera obscura. Talbot himself had spent the previous four years pursuing similar investigations, and he was fearful that his work would soon be upstaged. Later that month he presented his own process of photography to colleagues at the Royal Society in London. As Talbot soon discovered, however, his process was not only entirely different from Daguerre’s, it was also far less fully realized. Daguerre’s "daguerreotype," quickly nicknamed the mirror with a memory, rendered highly detailed, direct positives on sheets of polished copper; Talbot’s negative/positive process, which he came to call the calotype process and which was the forerunner of all modern photography, produced far less sharp images that faded quickly and required long exposure times. His photographs were, alas, "fairy pictures," as he himself wrote, and "destined as rapidly to fade away."
Yet with the rigor of a scientist and the dedication of a passionate inventor, he spent the next several years perfecting his method. By 1843 he mastered all these hurdles and set out to promote his invention both in Britain and abroad. He traveled to France to interest that country’s photographers in his process. In England he set up a printing establishment in Reading to publish his multivolume book, The Pencil of Nature, in order to demonstrate the artistic and scientific applications of his process, as well as its commercial viability.
Talbot also decided to publish a series of photographs of cathedrals. The reasons why he selected cathedrals are not known, but he may have wanted to distinguish his process from Daguerre’s, which was mainly used to make portraits. But surely, too, he understood that the softer focus of his calotypes, which massed lights and darks, would enable him to capture the ways in which light both revealed and caressed the architectural forms of the cathedrals. The series itself was never published as a book or portfolio, but the photographs he made for it are among his most accomplished works.
A Scene in York—York Minster from Lop Lane is one of the photographs Talbot made for this series. On July 28, 1845, he wrote his mother that he and his friend, the photographer Reverend Calvert Jones, spent the better part of the day studying the city and making photographs. Instead of focusing solely on the cathedral, Talbot positioned his camera so that York Minster is seen rising majestically from confines of the 19th-century city that surrounds it. By allowing the tops of the buildings to tilt inward (a convergence caused by pointing his camera upward), Talbot gives a sense of movement and dynamism to his composition. By including part of a building along the left-hand edge of the picture, he gives his viewers a sense of discovery, as if they, like Talbot, have just turned the corner and encountered this magical scene. The subtle details of the buildings—the reflection of light on the windows or the position of the shades—allow us to revel in the humble elements of the everyday life of the town, while the delicacy of Talbot’s depiction demonstrates that he had truly mastered, as he hoped, "the art of fixing a shadow."
on verso, by unknown hand, lower left in graphite: x2234; lower right: 901008; in black ink: LA485
Dr. and Mrs. Charles T. Isaacs, Hummelstown, PA; NGA purchase (through Charles Isaacs Photographs, Inc., New York), 2011.
- In Light of the Past: Celebrating Twenty-Five Years of Collecting Photographs at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, May 3 – July 26, 2015