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Snapshots of a world in flux

Times Staff Writer

In a strange and evocative panoramic picture made in 1846, British photographer William Henry Fox Talbot and his assistant (and former valet) Nicholas Henneman gave self-conscious display a new benchmark. It’s a photograph of photographers making photographs, all the while subsuming sculpture and painting in a potential surfeit of reproductions.

The two-part panorama, just 7 inches high and 16 inches wide, is one among more than 150 photographs by Talbot (and a few others) in a quiet landmark of an exhibition, newly opened at the Museum of Photographic Arts. Outdoors, in the gray light at a factory-like setting, eight photographers and assistants go about their resolute business.

In the center, Talbot prepares to make a portrait of a seated gentleman, whose elbow rests on a table next to a top hat. At the left, a man prepares to photograph a print of an oil portrait by Velazquez, Spanish master of dramatic optical effects, resting on an easel.

To the right, another man is photographing a plaster maquette of Antonio Canova’s famous Neo-Classical sculpture, “The Three Graces,” which linked modern concepts of beauty with antique traditions. And at the rear, men in aprons set out framed photographic negatives on racks to capture sunlight, nature’s contribution to making camera magic.

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The scene documents diligent work at a photofinishing laboratory Talbot established in Reading, England, in 1843. More than that, though, it pictures something unique -- something exciting and dangerous that was in the irreversible process of changing the world forever. Talbot’s panorama shows the startling wave of the new Industrial Revolution breaking on the ancient shore of art.

The rest, as they say, is history -- history that is just now entering yet another new dimension, thanks to the rise of digital imagery. But Talbot is the man who set certain basic terms by which photography operated for almost the last 150 years. He invented the photographic negative, the process by which light creates a negative image on a piece of chemically treated paper, which can then be reproduced -- once or in great quantity -- in a positive form.

“First Photographs: William Henry Fox Talbot and the Birth of Photography” was organized by MOPA director Arthur Ollman and curator Carol McCusker in conjunction with Michael Gray, curator of the Fox Talbot Museum at the photographer’s ancestral home, Lacock Abbey in Chippenham, England. Because of the fragility of so many of the paper works, which date to the 1840s, San Diego is one of but two stops on its tour. (The show was seen in New York in the winter.) The show celebrates MOPA’s 20th anniversary. Amazingly enough, it is also the only American show ever organized to chronicle Talbot’s pioneering achievement.

The museum’s press materials do not overstate the case when declaring that the world may not know who painted the first painting or who carved the first sculpture, but we do know who made the first photograph in a modern sense. And it wasn’t Joseph Nicephore Niepce, whose 1826 invention of a photomechanical printing plate was indeed epochal, or Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, whose patented daguerreotype process made sharp, detailed images on light-sensitive sheets of silver-plated copper that stunned observers with their visceral beauty in 1837.

The neck-and-neck competition between Englishmen and Frenchmen in the 1830s to establish a photographic process is well known and much studied. But, especially compared with Daguerre, one can only speculate on why Talbot has been so egregiously under-recognized by museum exhibitions.

Yes, there’s the obvious matter of fragileness. Talbot’s paper prints are fugitive in a way Daguerre’s sturdy metal plates are not. At MOPA, a few Talbots are behind velvet curtains that can be lifted, to protect them from the corrosive effects of too much light. Many of his earliest experiments have long since faded away, leaving only blank sheets of paper with pencil notations at the bottom, suggesting what the image might have been. And a number of the show’s works -- including his first paper negative, a ghostly 1835 image of light pouring through diamond-patterned panes of leaded glass in a room at Lacock Abbey -- are represented not by the originals, which are safely locked away in England, but by digital facsimiles.

But there are also other, equally illuminating explanations for art history’s tendency to favor Daguerre over Talbot in the story of photography. They turn on significant cultural differences.

Daguerre was a painter and scenic artist for the theater when he developed his hugely popular photographic process. Talbot, by contrast, was a scientist, mathematician, linguist and classical scholar. Indeed, not only wasn’t he an artist, his very frustration with his own inability to draw first got him thinking about a mechanical method for fixing images.

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France, not England, was the artistic epicenter of 19th century Europe.

And Daguerre was bourgeois, engaged in the lively commercial life of the day, while Talbot was Oxford-educated, patrician and aloof in a stratified society. Post-revolutionary Paris was politically volatile, and well on its way to becoming an intellectually rough-and-tumble center of avant-garde activity. Victorian London preoccupied itself with conscientious managerial pursuits at home and imperialist expansion abroad.

Some of that conscientiousness -- and even the imperialism -- can be seen in Talbot’s photographs. Many are like inventories. There are photographs of shelves lined with light-reflective silverware and tables set out with accouterments for tea. Family members and visitors to Lacock Abbey are recorded, not to mention various nooks and crannies of the estate, inside and out. He photographed at his alma mater, and during trips to France. He took pictures of plaster versions of favorite sculptures, pieces of lace and leaves of plants. He photographed book pages, and he published the first photo book.

Rarely artful, these forthright recordings of worldly things both large and small show the world coming slowly but relentlessly under the dominion of the camera, rather as Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta came under the sovereignty of Queen Victoria, empress of India. When he made his panorama of cameramen at work, the modern global ubiquity of photographs was presaged.

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If Talbot’s dreamy, atmospheric photos aren’t aesthetically challenging or even especially pleasing, the way a crisp, glamorous, silvery daguerreotype so often is, there’s no discounting the revolution Talbot’s brilliant innovation launched. Until the recent rise of digital imagery, which doesn’t even need the light of the world to fabricate a picture, making positive prints from negatives was the photographic standard.

Talbot’s first negative, the guileless one of crystalline windowpanes in his sitting room, is tiny, barely an inch or so big. That he took a picture of light streaming through transparent glass is poetic enough, reverberating as it does against photography’s very method of capturing illumination through a lens. But squint at the little digital facsimile in the show, and its parallel rows of fuzzy black rectangles seem strangely familiar. They resemble nothing so much as a forensic chart analyzing markers of modern culture’s DNA.

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‘First Photographs’

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What: ‘First Photographs: William Henry Fox Talbot and the Birth of Photography’

Where: Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: Open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed major holidays

Ends: June 15

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Price: $6 adults, $4 students and seniors; free, children under 12

Contact: (619) 238-7559


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