Friday, 21 January 2011

Bite 43: William Henry Fox Talbot - The Open Door, 1843

The Open Door, 1843
This is the birth of photography as an art form. Plate 5 from Talbot's groundbreaking photobook (one of the first ever) The Pencil of Nature - an apt descriptor for the new medium - he explained the work as an example "of the early beginnings of a new art." 

The first to see this potential, Talbot invented the calotype photographic process in England simultaneously with Niépce and Dageurre's invention in France. Although it was not blessed with the same initial success as the daguerreotype, it can be seen as perhaps a more foundational invention in the history of photography. Being a negative/positive process it was possible to create countless images from the initial negative thus becoming the basis for almost all succeeding processes. 

With The Open Door Talbot is not only exploring the capabilities of his new invention - "especially useful for naturalists since one can copy the most difficult things, for instance crystallization's and minute parts of plants, with great detail" - but he is also specifically emulating seventeenth-century Dutch paintings of scenes from everyday life. Photo-historian Larry Schaaf points out that the photograph draws on the doorway as a traditional symbol of the passage between life and light, and death and darkness. 

The broom is positioned diagonally against the doorway. The deep darkness of the interior, with only a hint of light from a window, emphasises a mystery and ambiguity.

Talbot has clearly taken deep consideration over the image's composition, and even the time of day for the negative to be exposed to increase contrast and utilise shadow as an aesthetic element - parallel to the broom - as well as to bring out texture in the door.

Although certainly relying heavily on the medium of painting - as much early photography which aspired to art did - The Open Door none-the-less represents the beginning of an ongoing exploration and tension within the medium over the relationship between photography and the history of art.

Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History, Lawrence King, 2002.