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Singular Images, Failed Copies: William Henry Fox Talbot and the Early Photograph

by Vered Maimon
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2015
270 pp., illus. 43 b/w. Trade, $105; paper, $30
ISBN: 978-0-8166-9471-6; ISBN: 978-0-8166-9472-3.

Reviewed by Rob Harle

This book is a highly detailed and incredibly well researched account of the development of photographic processes and photography in England in the early part of the nineteenth century. In Maimon's own words, "By addressing photography not merely as a medium or a system of representation but also as a specific epistemological figure, this book emphasizes historical discontinuity in order to challenge the prevalent association of early photography with the camera obscura" (p. ix).

Vered Maimon is currently lecturer in art history at Tel Aviv University, and this book Singular Images, Failed Copies evolved from her doctoral thesis at Columbia University. This transition from doctoral thesis to book has both a positive and negative outcome.

The positive side is Maimon has produced a study that 'corrects' many misconceptions regarding the early period of photographic history, a period when intellectual and creative pursuits were in great ferment. The negative side is the book is not particularly suited to the general reader perhaps hoping for a more personal account of Talbot's inventions and discoveries. This is nothing to do with Maimon's writing style, which is excellent and highly readable, but because of her deeply philosophical, scholarly investigations and her engagement almost exclusively with modern critical theory (Foucault, Barthes, et al). This is not a criticism of the book per se, just a caution that if you are looking for the more personal side of Talbot's associations, discoveries, and so on, the book will possibly be a disappointment. I personally would have liked to have read more about the chemical/technical aspects of some of the discoveries such as the basis of caloptypes, chrysotypes and celaenotypes. Maimon mentions these of course but not in sufficient detail for the general reader (p. 159).

Although throughout the book Maimon does discuss Talbot's association with various inventors, intellectuals and scientists (natural philosophers), this is only from the perspective of their intellectual influence on Talbot's work. For example Herschel, "as is stated earlier, was closely involved with and informed of Talbot's experiments and suggested the term photography for Talbot's first process, as well as the terms negative and positive" (p. 150).

William Henry Fox Talbot is considered the inventor of paper photography. This was considered as " a medium or system" of representation. However, Maimon challenges this and shows and emphasizes the epistemological nature of Talbot's work, and then explains how this informed the very essence of the radically changing understanding of nature in this transitional historical period.

Rather than the 'new' process shifting from manual "the artist's hand" to the mechanically more accurate "pencil of nature" via the camera, this period actually experienced Singular Images with numerous Failed Copies:

"And, most important, they do not conform to the mechanical condition of the copy, given that "no two are exactly alike" and therefore cannot be copied. What these reviews suggest is that photographic images opened a whole new set of considerations and concerns that were not conceived to be continuous with the aesthetic, conceptual, and epistemological premises of previous systems of imitation and copying." (p. 119)

The book is nicely produced with some wonderful reproductions of Talbot's early photographs. Following the Introduction, the book is divided into two parts.

Part 1 - "British Science and the Conception of Photography has two chapters. Scientific Method - The Engine of Knowledge, and Imagination - The Art of Discovery."

Part 2 - "Botanical Images and Historical Documents: The First Applications of Photography also has two chapters. Time - Singular Images, Failed Copies, and History - Displaced Origins and The Pencil of Nature."

As would be expected in a book of this nature there are extensive Notes and an excellent Index, also some very interesting and informative Appendixes.

As an aside this book has considerable personal interest for me both because of my interest in photography and photographic processes, and because my great grandfather, Dr Richard L. Maddox, coming a decade or so after Talbot, invented the gelatino bromide negative (dry plate) that became the basis of the modern negative used right up until the invention of the digital photography process.

Singular Images, Failed Copies will take its rightful place as an important addition to the literature on both the history of early photography and as a study of the radical changes in reasoning, intellectual investigation, inventions and the epistemological changes of the early years of the nineteenth century.

Last Updated 3rd March 2016

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