The tiny, two-inch photo looks like an overexposed screw-up, something that Costco's developing lab wouldn't charge you for. It's a ghostly white image, barely identifiable as a window that appears suspended in a thick haze of cumulous clouds. It's appropriately titled, "The First Photograph."
It was taken in 1838 by the wealthy English polymath William Henry Fox Talbot, who had just captured the phenomena of, as Arthur Ollman explains, "light drawing its own picture."
It's the world's first photograph. From that point on, the painter's hand wasn't the only tool for preserving three-dimensional reality by reducing it to two.
Ollman, artistic director for San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts, points to the handwritten notation beside the image. It reads: "When first made the squares of glass, about 200 in number, could be counted with help of a lens."
"Talbot wrote notebooks on everything," Ollman explains. "If he spent 20 cents on postage, he wrote it down. If he bought chemicals to practice with, he wrote how much he bought, where he bought it, when he bought it and how much it cost."
The stout, bearded artistic director turns to a glass case in the middle of the museum's east wing and points to a journal, purposefully opened to a specific page.
"He's making the drawing of a piston. Four lines before that, he says, "In the photographic, or sceographic process, if the paper is transparent, the first drawing may serve as an object to produce a second drawing which the lights and shadows will be reversed.'
"That is the first idea," Ollman says, lowering his voice and drawing out his speech to convey the heft of the moment. "That is the genesis idea of the positive-negative process right there."
Without a doubt, Talbot was a beneficiary of his family's wealth, which granted him the economic leisure to pursue as-of-yet impractical scientific hypotheses. He spoke six romantic languages. He learned Hebrew to be able to read the Bible. He was a botanist, a famed mathematician and a translator of Syrian cuneiform. He could also translate hieroglyphics.
"So he was used to trafficking in symbols that other people couldn't recognize," Ollman explains. "This was a period-the 1830s-when a lot of things that were not visible to the unaided eye were being studied, and they were separating out what was the realm of science and what was the realm of magic. How do you grab and study light? Talbot was fascinated with prisms, which proved that there was colored light within the white light. Who knew that?"
For 165 years, Talbot's work had never been exhibited. Four thousand of his photos were under the care of the Fox Talbot Museum, a small space on the grounds of the photographer's historical estate. Talbot's great-great-grandson, Anthony Maxwell Burnett-Brown, kept another 4,000 in boxes and drawers.
"[Brown] recognized that not many people in the world knew they had these things," Ollman says. "And he said, "We ought to let some people know.' Well, letting the world know means letting America know. This is the center of media empires. He asked his curator at this little museum who he knew in the United States who could create this show. And he's an old friend of mine, so he suggested us."
Unfortunately, Brown passed away just months before First Photographs: William Henry Fox Talbot and the Birth of Photography debuted this January at the International Center for Photography in New York City. San Diego's MoPA is the second, and final, exhibition of Talbot's work.
The exhibit is partitioned into three thematic spaces: Talbot's photos; photos taken in the 25 years after his invention by various photographers; and modern artists working in the old medium.
In actuality, Talbot was photography's co-inventor. Frenchman Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre invented the plate-based "daguerrotype" around the same time. While Daguerre's contribution shouldn't be underestimated (image fidelity was much greater than Talbot's), there was a distinguishing factor that caused Talbot's positive-negative system to endure: reproducibility.
"Ultimately he was looking for a process that could put imagery into publications-newspapers, magazines," Ollman explains. "He was a populist. He felt that the world could be given a lot of information that way, which of course, is abundantly true."
Talbot's vision is expressed throughout First Photographs. He was the first photographer to create a two-plate panoramic shot, a sprawling scene of Talbot's outdoor work environment that shows his colleagues exhibiting both the processes and the potential uses of the technology. One man operates a clock to time exposures. Another is photographing a piece of art. Yet another is having his portrait taken. Also pictured is the printing frames used to compile negatives for Talbot's book, The Pencil of Nature.
The Pencil of Nature was the world's first photographically illustrated book, in which Talbot tried to show all the possibilities.
"Photograph your library. Photograph botanical specimens. Photograph documents, art pieces, famous buildings, famous views.... You could photograph lace patterns-which was an important industry in England at the time-so you could patent them," Ollman explains. "It's a compendium of what he thought photography could do best."
Practical and capitalistic functions aside, Talbot also envisioned the medium as an art form, as exhibited by four photographs of outdoor scenery that could have served as the artwork for Henry David Thoreau's Walden."There's no purpose to make these images other than aesthetic expression," Ollman explains. "So long before we knew that there was going to be many, many branches to this tree of photography, he assumed that there would be an art branch. So he invented art photography as well."