William Henry Fox Talbot (British, 18001877)
Photogenic drawing negative; 3 1/4 x 4 3/16 in. (8.3 x 10.7 cm), irregular
The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee and Anonymous Gifts, 1997 (1997.382.1)
Talbot's first successful camera image, a photograph the size of a postage stamp, showed the oriel window in the south gallery of his home, Lacock Abbey. Although indoors, the subject was ideal: the camera could sit motionless on the mantelpiece opposite the window for a long exposure, and the bright sunlight pouring through the window provided strong contrast. The image on that first photograph, now in the National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television in Bradford, England, has, unfortunately, nearly faded from view. But using a slightly larger camera, Talbot photographed the oriel window again, probably that same summer. (He wrote, "some [pictures] were obtained of a larger size, but they required much patience.") The result, still miraculously well preserved, is the earliest photograph in the Metropolitan's collection and among the earliest surviving photographs anywhere. The diamond-paned windows are mysteriously visible in the purple chemical stains on this scrap of writing paper. Like the Venus of Willendorf, the crudely carved Paleolithic figure of a woman that is the first illustration in nearly every art-history survey because it seems to hold the promise of all that came afterward, The Oriel Window stands at the very beginnings of a new art. One senses the still palpable excitement that Talbot felt at having brought to reality an idea that had until that moment existed only in his imagination, that Nature could record its own image independent of the artist's hand. "A person unacquainted with the process," Talbot would later write, "if told that nothing of all this was executed by the hand, must imagine that one has at one's call the Genius of Aladdin's Lamp. And, indeed, it may almost be said, that this is something of the same kind. It is a little bit of magic realized."
In The Oriel Window and Talbot's other early camera images, lights and darks were reversed; they were negatives, though the term itself was coined by Sir John Herschel only in 1840. As early as February 1835, however, Talbot recognized this tonal reversal as an asset rather than a defect, understanding that "if the paper is transparent, the first [photogenic] drawing may serve as an object, to produce a second drawing, in which the lights and shadows would be reversed" to yield a positive print. That a single negative made in the camera might serve as the matrix for multiple positives lay at the heart of Talbot's conception and has remained a basic principle of nearly all subsequent photography.