What the VV would have given to be able to read Capturing the Light when she was writing Elijah’s Mermaid in which a young man becomes obsessed with the Victorian art of photograpy. However, she did visit the Fox Talbot Museum at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire – of whom Roger Watson, one of this book's authors, is the curator. The other is Helen Rappaport, an excellent writer and renowned historian, and together they have produced a vivid and stunning read which details the complexities of photography in a language that is clear and compelling.
They write about the very first idea of ‘light’ being captured when in the fifth century BC, the Chinese philosopher Mozi created an early version of the pinhole camera – also known as the camera obscura. Such a device was later used by Aristotle, and also by the artist Leonardo da Vinci as an aid to creating perspective.
But the real core of this story is that of two Victorian geniuses, both of whom played an enormous part in the modern invention of photography when they sought to solve the chemical problem of how to capture an image of light and then keep that image forever.
‘A person unacquainted with the process, if told that nothing of this was executed by hand, must imagine that one has at one’s call the Genius of Alladin’s lamp. And, indeed, it may almost be said, that this is something of the same kind. It is a little bit of magic realised.’ - Fox Talbot
Henry Fox Talbot was a quiet, solitary gentleman-amateur scientist, tinkering away on his grand estate in the English countryside. Of a scientific temperament, he left a huge amount of material in the form of notes and letters that can aid any present day investigation regarding his own development of the paper based calotype process of photography.
‘I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.’ Louis Dagguere
On the other hand, Louis Daguerre came from much humbler origins. Daguerre, who developed his process on glass, was a flamboyant and charismatic French scenery-painter – a showman and entrepreneur in search of fame and fortune. Little wonder that his self promotion led to great publicity and to many believing him to have been the father of photography.
But, during the 1830’s both men were working independently on the invention of photography - and Capturing the Light reveals which one of them actually 'got there' first, in developing the invention that would enable ordinary people, for the first time in history, to illustrate their own lives and leave something behind of their passing.
Photography would transform art, document times of both war and peace, and become so natural and widespread that now most every one of us carries a camera with us at all times, if only in the form of mobile phone. All too often we take this magical process for granted. But what a different world it would be without the 'gift' of photography and everything that has led to.
Today, we must be thankful to both of these men for their contributions to our lives. And should you have any interest at all in the subject of photography, the VV highly recommends this wonderful book.
For a related VV post: A LITTLE BIT OF MAGIC REALISED