Mousetraps and Sun-Pictures

I was inspired to write this post because of the question it raised, which I think is kickass. Today, February 11, is the birthday of William Fox Talbot (1800-1877) who is credited with being the inventor of photography.

As with many scientific discoveries, the bits and pieces of evidence–optical and chemical–were lying around for some time, and it took an enquiring mind to put them together.

The optical side of photography was provided with the Camera Obscura, which had been around for centuries as an aid to drawing. Leonardo da Vinci used it, and his contemporary Daniel Barbaro described it thus:

Close all shutters and doors until no light enters the camera except through the lens, and opposite hold a piece of paper, which you move forward and backward until the scene appears in the sharpest detail. There on the paper you will see the whole view as it really is, with its distances, its colours and shadows and motion, the clouds, the water twinkling, the birds flying. By holding the paper steady you can trace the whole perspective with a pen, shade it and delicately colour it from nature.

An early sci-fi novel by Charles-Francois Tiphaigne de la Roche (1729-1774), Giphantie, predicted the invention of photography.

For centuries people had been aware that some colors bleach in the sun, but it wasn’t clear whether this was the effect of heat, air, or light. In the seventeenth century, Robert Boyle, a founder of the Royal Society, reported that silver chloride darkened with exposure. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Thomas Wedgwood of pottery fame experimented with capturing images but couldn’t make them permanent.

The first successful picture was made with an eight hour exposure by Joseph Niepce in 1827, using material that hardened on exposure to light–he named it a heliograph. Rejected by the Royal Society, Niepce went into partnership with Louis Daguerre, who reduced the exposure time to half an hour and discovered that salt stabilized the image, and invented the daguerrotype.

Interestingly, neither Niepce nor Fox Talbot could draw, which is why they were so interested in artificial means of producing images. Niepce was forced to look elsewhere to continue his interest in lithography when his artist son went to war in 1814 (and may have died at Waterloo–something I couldn’t confirm). Fox Talbot continued his own experiments, successfully producing his first photograph of the oriel window at Lacock Abbey,Wiltshire, in 1835.

The photograph at the top of this post is also by Fox Talbot, showing Nelson’s column under construction in Trafalgar Square in 1843.

He nicknamed his cameras mousetraps.

In 1844-46 he published a collection of photographs, The Pencil of Nature (get your mind out of the gutter), demonstrating that this technology had both artistic and practical possibilities–in inventorying possessions, creating likenesses, and possibly also being of use in the legal system. He reminded readers:

The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.

If Talbot Fox had been born earlier, or if he had been a particularly precocious teenager, we might have had photos of the Regency. So, the kickass question. Imagine you’ve gone back in time with your digital camera carefully concealed in your capacious muff or elegant reticule (or, okay, tucked inside your stays):

What would you photograph and why?

And in the shameless self-promotion area, I’m guest blogging today at the Knight Agency blog for their Valentine’s Day celebration about my favorite pair of literary lovers and offering a copy of Improper Relations as a prize. Also check out my website which has been updated with excerpts, news, and a CONTEST!
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Jane Austen
12 years ago

When I was a freshman in college I remember reading this article for my American History class where it said that photographs were not a good depiction of what life was like because people pose and dress nice for photographs. This has always stuck with me and I think it is very true. Cameras are rarely brought out to record the every day.

My favorite thing to take photos of people pretending to be artwork. I like to pose like a statue in a museum and get my picture taken with him or her. My brother, Oreste, is wonderful fun at this since he loves to do it too. We have quite the good time in museums.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Oh, I would photograph the streets, busy with people and horses and carriages. I’d photograph as many people as I could, with really good resolution so I could look at the details of their shoes and buttons and things. I’d photograph houses and villages and inns and stables…I’d photograph Vauxhall Gardens and Hyde Park at 4 pm and, of course, the interiors of Almack’s and White’s (which would be tricky)

What have I left out?

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

I love the idea of infiltrating Almacks with a camera. I’d like to have photographed the insides of houses and the servants’ quarters (providing my flash didn’t alarm them too much in the darkness of below stairs!). I’d also liked to have taken pix of some of the famous people of the day, Byron, for example, to see how the portraits flattered them and see how they really looked.

Jane George
12 years ago

Up ladies’ skirts, thus ending the knickers debate forevermore!

Speaking of recording the everyday, cut and paste the below link to see film footage shot from a cable car in 1905 SF. Wonderful stuff.


Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Oh, Jane George! that was marvelous. I loved seeing the juxtaposition of past and future – cars and horses. Not too many women on the street, though.

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

Jane, loved that video. I particularly enjoyed the kids darting across the rails in front of the streetcar. Fascinating stuff.

Heather Snow
12 years ago

I would photograph interiors of the great houses. Some of my favorite picture books are ones like “England’s Lost Houses”. All of the fabulous manors and castles that were lost to us due to fire, decay, taxes, war… How I would LOVE to see them.

12 years ago

The biggie for my camera would be what does Jane Austen really look like! 🙂 After all, we only have one really good picture of her, who some think isn’t a true likeness anyway, so let see what she looked like. And how foppish did Brummel really appear day in and day out? 🙂


Kim in Hawaii
12 years ago

When we lived on the East Coast (and jumped the pond to the UK), hubby and I enjoyed taking photos of historic houses, crumbling castles, and even statues (we also have a few photos of us posing as statues in the Roman Coliseum).

But now we live in Hawaii where we can only find sand castles (pity, isn’t it?). To keep our website current, we take photos of Hawaii’s natural history – volcanic mountains, blue oceans, and vibrant flowers. Sadly, I don’t have my camera when I spot ships and subs in Pearl Harbor – they are majestic sights!

Miss Tinky
12 years ago

I think I’d have to photograph some working-class people. We have paintings of the upper crust but fewer visuals about their social “inferiors.”

Thanks for the wonderful photography lesson…….

Louisa Cornell
12 years ago

I’d have to do nothing but photograph 24 hours a day for days on end to get everything I wanted. The interiors of every single room in a London townhouse. As many stately homes as possible. As many outfits of clothing as possible.

But, I think what I would want to photograph most is the darker side of London. The gambling hells, the brothels, the slums, the places where good society never went and refused to even admit existed. I want to photograph the prisons, the workhouses, the orphanages and the madhouses.

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