Unreal Nature

July 19, 2017

The Bond Between Effort and Achievement

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… If, however, the crux of artistic production was purely a matter of seeing, then photography could render manual skill unnecessary …

This is from Photography and the Art of Chance by Robin Kelsey (2015):

Talbot knew from the start that chance was a problem. His concern surfaces in a book he wrote to describe and promote his invention, The Pencil of Nature, illustrated with salt-paper prints and published in installments between 1844 and 1846. A remarkably prescient defense of photography, The Pencil of Nature anticipates a wide range of uses for the medium, including photocopying, courtroom exhibits, and botanical illustrations. For some uses, the radical indifference of the process seemed a boon. But for others, it was a problem. This was especially true when it came to Talbot’s aspirations to see photography become a new art. To overcome this problem, he enlisted chance.

This enlistment responded to the implications of substituting an automatic chemical process for a traditional kind of labor.

Talbot proposes that art is a matter of the eye. He implies that sensitivity to the chance encounter binds the eye of the photographer to that of the painter. Both photographer and painter rely on a capacity to detect the potential of accident to stir the imagination or soul. Under this scheme, the true creative act in the pictorial arts is the arresting of the eye, the momentary cropping of a portion of a chanced-upon visual field. Talbot embraces the notion of the pictorial composition as a found object, whose aesthetic potential only the sensitive eye can discern.

The contrast between Talbot’s handling of the issue of chance in his accounts of his invention of photography, on the one hand, and in his discussion of the production of a picturesque photograph, on the other, is revealing. In the invention narratives, chance delivers curious results that spark an arduous process of scientific inquiry and technological improvement. Stumbling on the capacity of table salt to arrest the light sensitivity of his photographic papers is merely a catalyst to diligent experimentation and intelligent tinkering.

[line break added] But in the production of a picturesque photograph, stumbling across a broom in a doorway and apprehending the aesthetic potential of the scene supplants rather than inspires labor. By suppressing the considerable difficulty of the calotype process, Talbot suggests that once a serendipitous discovery occurs, only the brief use of a camera, some paper, and some chemicals is required. As an invention, photography emerges from great foresight and labor; as a modern commodity, its satisfactory use ostensibly requires only a little practice and, if aesthetically pleasing results are desired, an educated eye and a bit of luck.

[line break added] Talbot thus understood and exploited the inconsistency between espoused morality and the emergent consumer economy. His accounts associate photography as a product with a modern mode of opportunism that existed uneasily alongside Victorian moral affirmations of the bond between effort and achievement.

Talbot could have done otherwise. He could instead have emphasized the hard work that making aesthetically pleasing photographs required. Even without acknowledging the true difficulty of his photographic process, he could have posited a kinship between photographer and painter by stressing the aesthetic preparation that can inform the work of both. After all, there are good reasons to believe that he had not actually encountered the broom in the doorway by accident.


William Henry Fox Talbot, The Open Door, 1844

… The answer lies, I think, in Talbot’s investment in transferring the locus of creativity wholly to the eye. Such a transfer was necessary to reconcile his claim that photography was a labor-saving device with his claim that it was a medium of aesthetic value. For both claims to be sound, pictorial beauty could not be a function of work. If arranging brooms in doorways was the stuff of art, then presumably arranging paint on canvas would be as well, and issues of skill and manual facility would still loom large. If, however, the crux of artistic production was purely a matter of seeing, then photography could render manual skill unnecessary without forfeiting aesthetic potential.

[line break added] Talbot construes the real artistry of all pictorial art as an opportunism of sight. In his scheme, discovering a picturesque subject requires aesthetic sensibility and inspiration: transposing it to a surface, whether canvas or photographic paper, is merely a matter of mechanical industry. Talbot demotes the application of paint to canvas, or graphite to paper, to the status of ordinary labor, as if it were merely the burdensome execution of a creative perception.

… For … Victorians, drawing and taste, the felicitous hand and the aesthetic eye, were deeply entwined. Talbot pried them apart to exalt the power of photography as a labor-saving device.

… Once the photographic apparatus was set up and the lens cap removed, time did the work of making the image, and more or less became its subject. Photography embedded a moment of illumination on the reactive surface of the photographic plate.

My previous post from Kelsey’s book is here.

-Julie

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