Visit to the Fox Talbot Museum and Lacock Abbey

30th August 2017 visit to the Fox Talbot Museum and Lacock Abbey.

The Fox Talbot Museum isn’t very large, but it is really interesting. Before I arrived I had thought that William Henry Fox Talbot had produced the first photograph, but no, apparently that was Joseph Nicephore Niepce, in about 1826 with an exposure of around 8 hours on a pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea (1). So, being British I’m obviously upset that we didn’t get there first, but being European too, I’m glad it was the French. However, Fox Talbot made the first ever photographic negative. This was of some latticed windows in his house, which he rather imaginatively entitled ‘Latticed Window, Lacock Abbey’.

Fox Talbot negative

 

You can see several of my own photos of this same window in the slideshow below, three of which are taken on Fuji Instant Wide; the rest are digital. Given that the historical significance is the production of a negative, it seems odd that I’ve captured it on everything but. Next time I’ll remember to bring a 35mm camera.

Looking at the window I found myself wondering if when originally setting up his equipment Fox Talbot was aiming to capture the view through the latticed window or an image of the window itself, but as someone who seems to be taking images of or through windows most of the time at the moment I’m happy with the subject matter either way.

Fox Talbot experimented with numerous variations of light sensitive chemicals and paper with various levels of success. I found it very moving that he was driven by his inability to draw. He invented a photographic process giving the ability to produce numerous prints from one negative, driven essentially by what he saw as a personal flaw. To me that speaks volumes about the way people respond to their perceived weaknesses, and I found it a lesson all on it’s own.

Anyway, the museum explains the various processes Fox Talbot went through, the different chemicals and papers he tried and breakthroughs he made, and a few appropriate items and prints are displayed alongside. There is also a display of vintage cameras, chemicals and darkroom equipment including an enlarger that looks like a model used for War of the Worlds. There were some cameras from the Fenton Collection that I was able to pick up and have a play with. It was quite useful as I have an old Kodak camera and there were parts I wasn’t sure of. With the help of a museum guide I cleared up that the red ‘button’ next to the viewfinder on my old camera is actually a small spirit level.

Upstairs was a display of photographic prints by Thomas Kellner with ideas based on cubism that aim to force the viewer to come to the subject of the image with a fresh appreciation.

Thomas’ technique of fracturing these structures makes us do a double take.

I really liked the idea of using photographic negatives all put together to make unusual views of familiar landmarks; they’re essentially film contact sheets as artwork. Some images worked better than others; to me, the wider buildings were more successful than tall thin buildings like towers (Big Ben or Brooklyn Bridge for example). I like images or architecture and converging verticals are a real problem that I can’t deal with without software as I don’t have a tilt-shift lens. I think I might try doing something like this myself as it’s a totally different way to represent architecture. I’ve seen the idea of using strips of photographic negatives to make an image before but I thought it was interesting. Another thing I noticed is the wording. After my second tutorial on 24th August I had been working on my notes in my paper learning log and had thought about the idea of fracturing an image to represent the fracturing of the UK after Brexit. I’d cut up an image I had taken on instant film to represent this idea of fracturing, but wasn’t feeling entirely happy with it.

 

From my paper learning log, notes after my second tutorial.

 

Lacock Abbey cloister was closed for filming (I think they might be filming Fantastic Beasts II but they’re not telling the staff and it’s a secret so you don’t know), but access to the first floor abbey rooms was still available and it was interesting to see Fox Talbot’s working environment. The windows where he took the first photographic negative are nicely set up as a photo opportunity for visitors and being a photography student I had to take the bait. Lacock village is interesting and quaint, I’d really like to have had more time to explore it. As it was, I didn’t even get to the chocolate shop.

I can see why Fox Talbot and his family were inspired to record their environment with painting and with various photographic processes; it’s very beautiful. Obviously Fox Talbot’s desire to record botanical specimens was a major drive for him, but this was already accomplished before the production of his negative technique. Reading the various quotes dotted around attributed to him, art and the beauty of the natural environment and wanting to be able to faithfully capture that seem very important to him. Given my background in science I found him really inspiring as there seems to me to be  a wedge between disciplines now that obviously didn’t exist in the past.

Images of the museum, abbey and the Sign of the Angel pub in the village are included in the slideshow. For me, many of them follow on from assignment 1 – they are views of or through windows, or of reflections. The images have had some basic corrections in Lightroom.

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  1. Badger, G. and Davies, M. (n.d.). The genius of photography.

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