In William Henry Fox Talbot’s early treatise on photography The Pencil of Nature there is a humble image of a piece of fabric. Talbot placed black lace directly on to sensitised paper and exposed it to the sun. The lace appears white on a dark background. It doesn’t look like a negative, since we are as familiar with white lace as black. It doesn’t look like a cameraless photogram either – the flat fabric is so well rendered by the simple technique. Talbot’s term for the process was ‘photogenic drawing’, connecting it the idea that the photographic image was a mechanised stencil of the world. His image is simple and fascinating. The not yet standard mechanism of photography takes as its subject a piece of not quite standardised, hand made lace. It is scientific, distant and cool. It is also intimate, close and tactile. In this it embodies the paradoxes that run right through thinking about photography from its beginnings to the present. A photograph is all about surface yet it appears to have no surface. It is formal and systematic yet it brings out the particular in things. It is stoic and removed yet the light that touches the object then touches a receptive surface.
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Published in Photoworks Issue 5, 2005/6
Commissioned by Photoworks