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Wet Plate Photoshoot: Weekend at Lacock Abbey

On the weekend of the 2nd and 3rd of August 2014, ten wet plate photographers would gather from all corners of the UK to spend two days at Lacock – once the home of Henry Fox Talbot- and I was pleasantly surprised to be invited (Thanks Tony & Mark). After a gruelling drive on the Friday afternoon I arrived at the Picadilly camp site well on time. The owner, Peter, is a little peculiar but friendly enough. I pitched my tent and met most of the others at the Red Lion pub in Lacock village.

On the Saturday, we were met with rain, more rain, heavy rain, proper showers, downpours and more such fun. Driving up to the Lacock Abbbey, we met Roger Watson, the curator of the Fox Talbot Museum who guided us onto the site. Marquis and tents were pitched in record time, darkboxes erected and cars and vans unloaded before starting the day proper. Lucky for us, the rain cleared later in the morning and the burning sun that followed made for some …. interesting …..shooting conditions!

 

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I started my photography in the cloisters as I fell in love with the light the moment I laid eyes on it. Both plates here have an exposure of around 1-1.30 minutes at f4.5  and look to have suffered from collodion drying before development.

 

Sacristy

 

Some plates were a little less successful, such as the two below. The fogging on the plates may have come from warm developer, warm silver, warm plates, drying plates…..

 

The Chapter House

 

The Chapter house

 

This image, taken from the cloister walkway, I tried about three times before I settles on this one, and ‘perhaps it was not to be’. There are more than a few subjects that will be very hard to capture in collodion due to very low or very high contrast. This particular scene had everything going for it in colour, but falls completely flat in this beautiful process….Also note the two darker spots on the top right. These are actually collodion drying spots where I had my fingers whilst supporting the plate. Mark Voce told me this is a myth – but it was clearly happening to me! You will be able to spot some of these black marks on other plates as well.

 

Cloisters

 

I had taken several other plates on the day, from outside the building, keeping the Abbey in full view – which all failed. Oh well.

On the Sunday, the weather had dried up completely. We rode in convoy back to the site, set up and started afresh. This first image was shot into the sunlight, which might not have been the best choice! I shielded the lens with my hand from a slight distance, but the haziness due to the brightness of the light is clear.

 

Entrance archway

 

Slightly less conventional, I then tried to capture the tap we used to take fresh water for rinsing our plates. I loved the contrast between the strict lines of the tap and pipes, the grittiness of the old wall and the lush succulence of the plants. Again, it didn’t quite go as planned. I left myself only a small space to move in and it’s noticeable that the first attempt at the top is much better framed than my second one. Apart from that, The grain of the wall and the detail on the plants – their shadows being quite deep – might be something not easily captured in one plate.

 

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tap

 

Next, I moved to the Abbey walkways. Initially, I wasn’t going to take this image as it seems too obvious a shot, but I’m happy I did. The first attempt worked well at 1:30 at around f8, and dried well after – but it seemed so dark when wet, that I decided to shoot a second one at 2:00 at f8. The second plate is so beautiful and silvery on the plate and I am completely in love with it! The white lines going through the middle are left by people going into the abbey, the open door can be seen on the end.

 

Cloisters hallway

Cloister hallway

 

Staying within the cloisters, I decided on a hard shot to take and I set up at the Abbess stairs. There is a window and stairs and no room to more back from them. The stairs being still very dark, regardless of the window right next to them. I do like how this image somehow looks like I used flash lighting. The exposure was 2 minutes at f4.5.

 

The Abbess stairs

 

One of the last shots I then set up was in one of the darkest rooms in the cloisters. There is quite a fair amount of space, before you get to 3 coffins in front of a latticed window. Most visitors just cast a glance at the coffins and pass through to the next space, making in a perfect subject in a busy National Trust property. I set up in the corner and it took two attempt to get this plate. With the lens wide open at f4.5, it took 2:30 minutes and quite a bit of over development. I am sorry/ happy to say that this plate didn’t scan amazingly well and the original looks a lot better!

 

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The weekend was more than amazing and even though the weather didn’t always play ball, the organization, location and company more than made up for that small hindrance. Many thanks to all that came along and made it so enjoyable!

 

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William Henry Fox Talbot

Today we will be discussing one of the grand daddy’s of photography: William Henry Fox Talbot. Even though he is one of the most important men in history in regards to the photographic process, I find it quite hard to enthuse myself for his images. The photographic drawings I get, and even the first photo of the latticed window is beautiful in its own regard – but most of the other images leave me only luke-warm. I find it almost as if this man if more concerned with the chemical basics, the technical (im)perfections that he is less focused on creating a compelling image. True, it makes him no less a genius, but unfortunately not so much of the artistic kind.

 

William Henry Fox Talbot  was born on the 11th of February 1800 as the only child of William Davenport Talbot, of Lacock Abbey, near Chippenham, Wiltshire, and of Lady Elisabeth Fox Strangways, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester. His father died when he was only 5 months old, and his mother re-married in 1804 to Capitan Charles Feilding. It was then that Talbot gained a real father and, soon, two half sisters, Caroline August Feilding and Henrietta Horatia Maria Feilding.

Talbot was educated at Rottingdean, Harrow School and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was awarded the Porson prize in Classics in 1820. From 1822 to 1872, he frequently communicated papers to the Royal Society, many of them on mathematical subjects. At an early period, he had begun his optical researches, which were to have such important results in connection with photography. To the Edinburgh Journal of Science in 1826 he contributed a paper on “Some Experiments on Coloured Flame”; to the Quarterly Journal of Science in 1827 a paper on “Monochromatic Light”; and to the Philosophical Magazine a number of papers on chemical subjects, including one on “Chemical Changes of Colour.”

On 20 December 1832, he married Constance Mundy and almost at the same time, he was elected and joined the parliament until 1834 as the reform candidate for Chippenham. They would have two children together, Ela in 1836 and Rosamond in 1837.

Talbot said he engaged his photographic experiments beginning in early 1834, well before 1839, when Louis Daguerre exhibited his pictures taken by the sun. It was while relaxing at Lake Como in Italy that Talbot tried to draw some pictures with the aid of a camera lucida, but found himself frustrated by not being able to sketch the scenery. Talbot’s imagination turned to the possibility of the light itself drawing the picture upon the paper, by using a camera obscura. By coating ordinary writing paper with alternate washes of table salt and silver nitrate, William Fox Talbot embedded a light-sensitive silver chloride in the fibres of the paper. Placed in the sun under an opaque object such as a leaf, the paper would darken where not defended from light, producing a photographic silhouette. Talbot called the resulting negatives sciagraphs – drawings of shadows.

Talbot recognized the value in producing a negative image at first, because it meant that the picture could be duplicated. When the paper negative was soaked in oil it became transparent, and could then be contact printed onto another identically sensitised paper, a positive. By February 28, 1835 William Fox Talbot had described in a letter the negative-positive system. His paper negative of Lacock Abbey’s window, made in August 1835, survives to this day. He built many small wooden camera obscuras but he did not publicize his work. In 1835 Talbot contemplated writing a report to the Royal Academy of Sciences, but he did not see any reason to make a premature announcement until he had enough time to perfect the process. So, he set aside his photographic work and directed his efforts instead on writing a book called Hermes, or Classical and Antiquarian Research.

After Daguerre’s discovery was announced (without details), Talbot rushed to show his five-year-old pictures at the Royal Institution on 25 January 1839. Within a fortnight, he freely communicated the technical details of his photogenic drawing process to the Royal Society. Daguerre would not reveal the finer details of his process until August. In 1841, Talbot announced his discovery of the calotype, or talbotype, process. This process reflected the work of many predecessors, most notably John Herschel and Thomas Wedgwood. In August 1841, Talbot licensed Henry Collen, the miniature painter (1798–1879) as the first professional calotypist. Talbot’s original contributions included the concept of a negative from which many positive prints can be made (although the terms negative and positive were coined by Herschel), and the use of gallic acid for developing the latent image. In 1842, for his photographic discoveries detailed in his The Pencil of Nature (1844), he received the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society.

The work on the Daguerre process was taking place at the same time as that of Talbot’s work in England on the calotype process. Daguerre’s agent in England applied for a British patent a matter of days before France, having granted Daguerre a pension, declared his invention “free to the world”. Great Britain therefore became the only country where the payment of license fees was required to use the Daguerre process.

In February 1841, Talbot obtained a patent for the calotype process. At first, he was selling individual patent licences for £20 each, but later he lowered the fee to £4 and waived the payment for those who wished to use the process only as amateurs. Professional photographers, however, had to pay up to £300 annually. In a business climate where many patent holders were attacked for enforcing their rights, Talbot’s behaviour was widely criticized, especially after 1851 when Frederick Scott Archer publicized the collodion process. Talbot declared that anyone using Archer’s process would still be liable to get a license for the calotype. In 1843-44, he had set up an establishment in Baker Street, Reading, for the purpose of mass producing salted paper prints from his calotype negatives. The Reading Establishment (as it was known) also produced prints from other calotypist’s negatives and even produced portraits and copy prints at the studio.

One reason Talbot patented the calotype was that he had spent many thousands of pounds on the development of the calotype process over several years. It is also significant that, although the daguerreotype process was supposed to be free to the world, Daguerre secured a British patent on his own process. Talbot’s negative/positive process eventually succeeded as the basis for almost all 19th and 20th century photography. The daguerreotype was rarely used by photographers after 1860 and had died as a commercial process by 1865.

The calotype or talbotype (he used these names interchangeably) was Talbot’s improvement of his earlier photogenic drawing process by the use of a different silver salt (silver iodide instead of silver chloride) and a developing agent (gallic acid and silver nitrate) to bring out a latent image on the exposed paper. This reduced the minimum exposure time in the camera from over an hour to only a minute or two. The translucent calotype negative made it possible to produce as many positive prints as desired by simple contact printing; the daguerreotype was an opaque direct positive that could only be reproduced by copying it with a camera. On the other hand, the calotype, despite waxing of the negative to make the image clearer, still was not pin sharp like the metallic daguerreotype, as the paper fibres degraded the image produced.

The problem was resolved in 1851 (the year of Daguerre’s death) when the wet collodion process enabled glass to be used as a support; the lack of detail often found in calotype negatives was removed, and sharp images, similar in detail to the daguerreotype, were created. The wet collodion negative not only brought about the end of the calotype in commercial use, but also spelled the end of the daguerreotype as a common process for portraiture.

In August 1852, The Times published an open letter by Lord Rosse, the President of the Royal Society, and Charles Lock Eastlake, the president of the Royal Academy, who called on Talbot to relieve his patent pressure that was perceived as stifling the development of photography. In his response, Talbot agreed to waive licensing fees for amateurs, but he continued to pursue professional portrait photographers, having filed several lawsuits.

In 1854, Talbot applied for an extension of the 14-year patent. At that time one of his lawsuits, against a photographer Martin Laroche, was heard by the court. The Talbot v. Laroche case was the pivotal point of the story. Laroche’s side argued that the patent was invalid, as a similar process was invented earlier by Joseph Reade, and that using the collodion process does not infringe the calotype patent anyway, because of significant differences between the two processes. In the verdict, the jury upheld the calotype patent but agreed that Laroche was not infringing upon it by using the collodion process. Disappointed by the outcome, Talbot chose not to extend his patent.

Talbot died in Lacock village near Chippenham, Wiltshire, on the 17th of September 1877 – aged 77, and is buried there along with his wife and children.

 

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