Twilight of the Photographic Negative
The word photography has been tossed around as a general term since John Herschel first coined it in the 1830s. But it also describes a specific heliographic process in the 19th century. Unlike its first rival, the daguerreotype, it came to mean the making of a negative or a positive print from a negative. The negative is a unique object; it’s the physical artifact from the actual event it documents.
Negatives, the basis of nearly every photographic image made in our own, contemporary time, were important until now. The negative, teetering on the precipice of extinction, has nearly been phased out as the natural evolution of one technology gradually, but completely, overtaking another. For example, the way digital has been replacing silver gelatin film, the transition doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a messy affair filled with denial, anger, depression—and like stages of grief, it can go beyond acceptance to expectation.
Observing the 175th anniversary of the invention of the photogenic drawing negative by William Henry Fox Talbot is bittersweet as we collectively watch the unraveling of what was so familiar. Like most change, however, new technology is both unsettling and full of promise. Digital photography is different. It doesn’t require a negative, and the positive pictures are printed in pigments, not developed with chemicals. Pigments, traditionally used in artists’ paints, are more permanent than silver-based photography. It’s a substantial step forward in the evolution of images made with light, and one might expect that the early inventors of photography would have loved it.
Although the new is often destined to overtake the old, it is only by the miracle of digital imaging that pictures made with Talbot’s original photogenic drawing process can be exhibited for the first time. Nineteenth century examples from the dawn of photography reveal a surprising pallet of colors, which is the result of chemical treatments used to make them less sensitive to light. Even so, they remain fugitive and are never exhibited. By 1841, Talbot settled on a more permanent technique that left his photographs a brown hue that remained the print aesthetic until long after the turn of the century.
We made the following images at Lacock Abbey from paper negatives exposed within small wooden cameras identical in design to those Talbot used for his first experiments. A small hole in the front of each camera allowed for viewing and focusing the projected image directly upon the sensitive paper within. Like viewing celestial scenes with a reflection telescope, the technique involved aiming the camera over the shoulder to reveal the subject behind.
Every morning at the Abbey barn, we sensitized small sheets of paper with silver nitrate and table salt and fitted them into eight small cameras. Then, as a trapper sets a trap line, we walked the same steps as Talbot throughout the abbey and grounds. We nestled our little cameras with pre-visual confidence, a nod to serendipity, and then walked away. If we had strong sun and an architectural scene, the paper required about two hours’ exposure to form a strong negative image. Natural subjects such as trees and distant landscapes typically needed much more. An entire day of exposure was necessary to form images of anything on cloudy or rainy days.
When usable daylight ceased, we retraced our steps and gathered up the cameras while hoping none had been disturbed. Then, back at the barn, we opened up our cameras. Like cleaving geodes, we were amazed by the gift of the fully formed negatives within: watercolors sketched by the sun. What we saw was no less miraculous than when Talbot first created similar images in 1835.
It was easy to drift away from Talbot’s path and stray beyond. While scanning the first tests of our fragile negatives, we were curious to see how they might translate as positive images. At the crossroads of these two technologies, we discovered that digitally inverting the photogenic drawing negatives into positives revealed more than Talbot could have ever dreamed. Instead of projecting through the visual noise of paper, we were able to see so much more by digitally capturing and inverting only the surface of these camera images.
Like recalling the memory of a dream, the positives were smooth, familiar—yet complex. There was no expectation that even a ghost of the hundreds of visitors who visit the abbey on a typical day would appear on the paper during the two- to six-hour exposures. But looking at these pictures, there is a presence of all who have ever walked there.
Inversion of the negatives also reversed the colors to hues unknown to Talbot. Some of these were retained in the exhibition prints while we manipulated other positives to reflect the amazing, though fugitive, colors one might expect from an original photogenic drawing from Talbot’s time. The negatives are exhibited in their actual photogenic colors, which continue to change every time we expose them to light.
Climatic events beyond our control further tempered our conceptual approach. Where Talbot might have put his cameras aside due to insufficient sunlight, we agreed that the light that surrounds a subject is as important as that which falls upon it. Looking upward, we noticed that the trees within the abbey walls and in the surrounding fields reflected the sky around them. And so, we began to photograph the sky, even in the driving rain.
The simple silhouettes we expected to produce became otherworldly when we combined old techniques with new. Light and foreshortened tree limbs seemed transformed into spheres with weight and mass, creating the illusion of a celestial body. Ultimately, it was energy that was the actual subject: the light at Lacock. So, rather than being mutually exclusive, these images celebrate the synergy of 19th and 21st century technologies that complement each other at the twilight of photography.
Visit the Scully/Osterman website at http://www.collodion.org.
France Scully and Mark Osterman are showing the Sun Sketches work now at Centrum Kultury Zamek, the Cultural Center in Poznan, Poland. In February 2014, they will have a huge exhibit at Tilt Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ.
For historical comparisons to France Scully and Mark Osterman’s work, see Han Kraus’ "Sun Pictures" site for reference to Talbot.
Recommended further reading The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot by Larry J. Schaaf