The Birth of a Medium

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The New York Sun

The Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Fine Photographs gallery sent out a witty postcard announcing its move to a new space on Park Avenue. On the front of the card is a sepiatinted photograph of the street entrance to the gallery: A brass plaque to the right of the open door has the gallery name on it, but the name plates to the left announce “Anna Atkins,” “Roger Fenton,” “G. Le Gray,” and “W.H. Fox Talbot.” Leaning against the doorjamb is a broom made of twigs, the sort peasants have used to clean their cottages ever since it first occurred to anyone to sweep the floor.

Atkins, Fenton, et al. are well-known mid- 19th-century photographers, and the broom reprises a famous image Henry Fox Talbot took of a similar broom in the doorway of one of the cottages on his estate. Appropriately, the first show in the gallery’s new space is “Sun Pictures: From Talbot to Turner,” a selection of early British photographs dating from 1839 to 1864.

It is a source of wonderment that photography was that good, that fast. After all,1839 was the year Talbot announced the invention of a negative-positive photographic process (as opposed to the Daguerreotype, announced the same year in France). Almost immediately, he and a rapidly expanding circle of relatives, friends, scientific colleagues, and enthusiasts were creating images of great charm and sophistication. The primary interest in some of the pictures at Kraus is their antiquity, but many have an enduring aesthetic appeal.

Talbot’s “Roofline, Lacock Abbey,” a photogenic drawing negative dated November 16, 1839, is an artifact of great interest to anyone curious about the origins of photography. A photogenic drawing is a very primitive photograph, one made solely by the action of sunlight with no chemical processing. Because of the very long exposure necessary, it was suitable only for shooting inanimate objects; in this case, the subject is an aspect of Lacock Abbey, Talbot’s estate and the site of much of his early experimentation.

Since this is a negative, the image is mostly an undifferentiated pale mass. (The positive would be mostly an undifferentiated dark mass.) One of the few things that can be deciphered in the negative is the inscription “Nov. 16. / 39,” in the lower right-hand corner. And once you know it is the roofline of Lacock Abbey, you can recognize the silhouette of one of its chimneys projecting up from the roof. “Roofline, Lacock Abbey” looks more like a washed-out painting by Mark Rothko than it does a photograph, yet this is the genesis of the medium.

I remember the day in 1948 when my father brought home a Zenith television set with a round viewing screen; after it was plugged in, the family stared incredulously at an episode of a serial about the French Foreign Legion. The early Talbot images made an even stronger impression on those who saw them, because they were less well prepared. Technological change is now so ubiquitous it takes an act of will to marvel at the ingenuity required to produce it,but “Roofline, Lacock Abbey,” as crude as it is, remains a splendid achievement.

The other photogenic drawing negatives include “Leaf”(early 1840s),”Leaf With Its Stem Removed” (mid-1840s), and “Insect Wings, Seen in the Solar Microscope” (probably 1840).The titles remind us that Talbot was first a scientist, with a special interest in botany. He immediately enlisted his invention in the service of science, but there is considerable beauty in these images.

“Leaf” is especially attractive in its elegant simplicity. Larry Schaaf, who wrote the text for the exhibition catalogue, says Talbot was “the first artist to be trained by photography,” and giving the art agency shows deep insight into the process that lead to such conscientiously artful landscapes as “Near Chepstow” (early 1840s), and the assured “Bridge at Rouen” (May 1843).

Talbot’s Welsh cousin Christopher “Kit” Rice Mansel Talbot became an accomplished photographer; his “Falls of Schaffhausen” (1846) is on view here. Kit’s sister Emma Thomasina, her husband John Dillwyn Llewelyn, and their daughter Thereza also became photographers. Llewelyn’s posed tableau “The Fortune Teller” (1856) is classic Victoriana: A proper young woman is having her future told by a women in gypsy clothing in the latter’s outdoor encampment, while her younger brother waits in a little tent.The boy lies with his head supported on a hand, and a look of longsuffering boredom on his face.

Here, too, are pictures of and by Nicolaas Henneman, the Paris-educated Dutchman who entered Talbot’s service in time to help him set up the experiments that led to the invention of photography. Henneman rose to the top of the service structure at Lacock Abbey, and was later set up by Talbot as a commercial photographer, first in Reading, and then, more successfully, in London.

Henneman was capable of competent portraits (1847’s “Edward Anthony”), powerful architectural studies (1844’s “Westminter Abbey”), and such curiosities as “Aztec Lilliputians” (1853), of two Mexican siblings born with the condition of microcephaly, who were exhibited daily in the Hanover Square Rooms for several years. There are also five pictures by Henneman of a group of Zulus who were brought (with their consent) to London in 1852 for exhibition purposes: The pictures are distinguished by their dignified representation of these exotic Africans.

Benjamin Brecknell Turner took up photography in the decade after Talbot’s invention, and continued to use Talbot’s techniques, including the use of paper negatives, long after most photographers had adopted newer methods. There are eight of Turner’s works at Kraus, including bucolic landscapes, rocky seascapes, and timeworn old buildings. The subject of “Eashing Bridge, Surrey” (1852-54) was built in 1233: Turner contrasts its stone arches, flat roadbed, and simple wooden railing with the stark, irregular branches of a series of leafless trees.

Oddly, these mid-19th-century English pictures put me in mind of the Japanese aesthetic principle known as wabi sabi, which the knowledgeable authority Andrew Juniper has described as “an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things.” Turner and other photographers, using a revolutionary technology in an age of furious scientific invention, recorded a familiar, traditional world that was fading faster than their waxed salt prints from caloptype negatives.

Until June 2, by appointment only (962 Park Avenue, 212-794-2064).

The New York Sun

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