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Book Review: William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography


Book Review William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography By Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean, & Chitra Ramalingam Reviewed by Alexandra Huddleston William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography is an illustrated collection of twelve academic essays on the eponymous inventor of numerous early photographic technologies.

William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography.
 By Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean, & Chitra Ramalingam.
Yale University Press, 2013.
 
William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography
Reviewed by Alexandra Huddleston

William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography
By Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean, and Chitra Ramalingam

$75.00
Yale University Press, New Haven, 2013. 328 pp., 100 color illustrations, 7x10".


William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography is an illustrated collection of twelve academic essays on the eponymous inventor of numerous early photographic technologies. The stated aim of the work is to use recent research on Talbot’s archive of manuscripts, notebooks, correspondences, and photographs to contextualize Talbot and his photographic discoveries within the framework of his other research and of the historical, cultural, and scientific context he inhabited.

As a collective, the essays effectively do just that, and a quick glance at the biographies of their authors shows why the essays are so persuasive and why the subtitle is aptly ‘beyond photography.’ Talbot was the quintessential polymath, and his work on photography’s discovery is only the most well know of his many research topics. He was also a botanist (with a particular interest in mosses), a mathematician (with a focus on elliptic functions), an Assyriologist (who worked on the early decipherment of cuneiform), and an amateur fiction writer. His accomplishments in many of these fields may never have been groundbreaking, but they are significant enough that the expertise of the historians of mathematics, science, and Ancient Middle Eastern science who have contributed some of the included essays brings a necessary perspective to Talbot’s work and his place in art and scientific history.

William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography. By Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean, & Chitra RamalingamYale University Press, 2013.

Individual readers will most likely choose their favorite essays depending on their own particular interests and preoccupations, and there is a wide range to choose from. I was particular fascinated by Larry J Schaaf’s piece 'The Caxton of Photography:' Talbot’s Etchings of Light since I was not aware that Talbot discovered the halftone dot and developed early techniques of photogravure.

William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography. By Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean, & Chitra RamalingamYale University Press, 2013.

Perhaps the most startling quote for readers who only know of Talbot as Britain’s contestant for the inventor of photography is Eleanor Robson’s statement at the end of her essay “Bel and the Dragon: Deciphering Cuneiform after Decipherment”: “Assyriology provided, in short, a limitless source of apparently unattractive and intractable problems of the sort that Talbot had relished since he was a child. From this perspective it is clear that Talbot’s Assyriology was far from an irrelevance, an old man’s hobby with which he idled away the quiet decades between his great invention and his death. On the contrary—indeed, to be deliberately contrarian—one could even argue that photography was just a phase he went through on the way to finding his true vocation.”

William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography. By Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean, & Chitra RamalingamYale University Press, 2013.

William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography is part of a series of works on British art published by the Yale Center for British Art and the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art. There are relatively few photographs in the book, and the work makes no apologies for its academic approach—and it has no reason to. However, a reader seeking an image-rich study or a more introductory text on early British photography would probably be more likely to enjoy a different work (such as Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negative, 1840-1860 or a the fairly recent publication of a reproduction of The Pencil of Nature). Nonetheless, anyone who enjoys lifting higher the veil thrown by the obscurities of time and culture over the past, will enjoy the light shed by the essays of this book on one of photography’s pioneers.—ALEXANDRA HUDDLESTON


ALEXANDRA HUDDLESTON is an American photographer who was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and grew up in the Washington, DC area and in West Africa. She holds a BA from Stanford University and an MS in broadcast journalism from Columbia University. Her work has been published in The New York TimesZeit Magazine, and National Geographic Explorer, and exhibited in group and solo shows worldwide. Among other honors, she has received a Fulbright Grant for her photographic work. Her prints are in the permanent collection of the US Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African Art Eliot Elisofon Photo Archives. In 2012 Huddleston published the collaborative artists’ book Lost Things under her own imprint, The Kyoudai Press. 333 Saints: A Life of Scholarship in Timbuktu is her second book and Searching for Lost Time: Night Photographs from Timbuktu is her third. http://www.alexandrahuddleston.com

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