When William Henry Fox Talbot published the very first photo-illustrated book, in 1844, he gave it the title The Pencil of Nature. Alongside the likes of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre and Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, William Talbot can doubtlessly be considered as one of the trailblazers of photography. He was the first to create negatives that could be reproduced as photographs again and again. Let me remind you that daguerreotypes, for example, were always unique and non-reproducible.

The title of Talbot’s book says a great deal about the aspirations of the nascent history of photography. When Talbot wrote that he wanted to be able to capture the beauty of nature, he mused: ‘… how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper!’ (Talbot 1844, np). Nature itself would wield the brush. The artist’s hand seemed to have been rendered redundant. What we would get to see, then, would be nature as it presents itself objectively to us. The distorting influence of human subjectivity would thus at once be eliminated. Geoffrey Batchen rightly argues that what matters here historically is not this new technological development as such, but the coining of a new metaphor that would from then on determine the further development of our thinking about photography. Henceforth, photography would be cast as a paradigm of the search for an objective truth that would be independent of any human involvement. This metaphor became dominant, changing photography from ‘an occasional, isolated, individual fantasy to a demonstrably widespread, social imperative’ (Batchen 1997, 36). Louis Daguerre had already talked about the power to make nature reproduce itself. Talbot, himself a scientist, even more explicitly referred to ‘the true law of nature which they (his photographs, MVdB) express’ (cited in Batchen 1997, 66). He believed that nature’s inimitable paint brush would come to replace the artist’s.
From then on, for about a century and a half, photography would be seen as a mirror of the true nature of things. ‘They were comfortably regarded as causally generated truthful reports about things in the real world, unlike more traditionally crafted images, which seemed notoriously ambiguous and uncertain human constructions – realizations of ineffable representational intentions’ (Mitchell 1994, 225). The metaphor of nature’s paint brush, in other words, stands for the pursuit of objectivity and certainty and the elimination of ambiguity. Photographs impose a certain reading simply because it is given by nature. In that sense, photographs would count as evidence of all manner of situations, of how things truly are. And they serve this purpose better than any other kind of pictures. This explains the difference between your reactions to the two letters I started my story with. Photographs tell a truth – or at least that is what they were presumed to do.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-77
Number of pages7
Issue number16
StatePublished - Apr 2015

    Research areas

  • Philosophy of Photography

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