Tuesday, April 1st, 2003

The Awesome Presence of an Implicate Order

Susan Derges and William Henry Fox Talbot

First Photographs: William Henry Fox Talbot and the Birth of Photography; International Center of Photography, New York, December 13, 2002 to February 16, 2003

Under The Moon: Susan Derges; Paul Kasmin, New York, January 1 to February 8, 2003

William Henry Fox Talbot The Tomb of Sir Walter Scott, in Dryburgh Abbey, October 25, 1844, from Sun Pictures in Scotland Courtesy Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Alley. Collection, Wiltshire, England
William Henry Fox Talbot, The Tomb of Sir Walter Scott, in Dryburgh Abbey, October 25, 1844, from Sun Pictures in Scotland Courtesy Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Alley. Collection, Wiltshire, England

Two exhibitions in New York this winter by artists whose timelines are separated by 150 or so years offered themes exploring science, nature, and art through the medium of photography. With First Photographs: William Henry Fox Talbot and the Birth of Photography, ICP mounted the first-ever exhibition of Fox Talbot (1800-1877) at a major museum in the US. Coincidentally, it overlapped with Susan Derges’s debut at Paul Kasmin Gallery, Under The Moon. The timing of the two shows was like a rare eclipse: Fox Talbot’s work is extremely fragile and almost never travels, while Derges’s work travels so much that consecutive bodies of work might circle the globe before they land in New York again. Both artists happen to be British (fairly allowing Fox Talbot, the 19th century inventor of the calotype process, to be called an artist), and their approaches to the themes mentioned above are as notable for what they treat, and how, as for what they leave out. The scientific bent of Derges’s photography invites comparison with Fox Talbot and, despite many differences, the two may have more in common than first appears.

The International Center of Photography‘s presentation of Fox Talbot as Victorian humanist, scientist, and artist might be understood as part of a significant effort ICP has made in recent years to reorient its institutional charter, originally based upon Cornell Capra’s photo-journalist mission, to be more inclusive of photography’s complex role in visual world culture.

The exhibition is organized in six parts: Fox Talbot, the Man; The Domestic World of Lacock; Objects of Admiration; Men of Science and the Reading Establishment; The Pencil of Nature; and Travels Through France and Britain. Vitrines displaying small, velvet framed daguerreotype portraits of Fox Talbot made by colleagues depict his physical mien while notebooks written in his own elegant longhand attest to his activity as a philologist and short story writer. One vitrine contains a portrait camera Fox Talbot used as of 1843, a beautiful wooden box made of mahogany, glass, and brass fitted with a huge lens (3-element, F 1.2, 140 mm [5.5 inch lens without stops]) that was likely ground to his specifications. Another holds a solar microscope with a little wooden plank and small mirror arranged to bounce light through several lenses, enlarging a moth’s wings sandwiched between glass slides. The microscope’s circular image of the wing patterns, about an inch in diameter, was printed on a small sheet of paper (assumed to be contemporary photo paper) displayed in the vitrine. There’s even a plaster bust of Patroclus, Achilles’s friend from the Iliad, modeled after a Greek marble head in the British Museum collections. Fox Talbot ordered copies of statuary as early as 1839 in the interest of applying photography to the reproduction of art (3-dimensional white objects were a better bet than paintings, for the time being.)

Most importantly, the fragile 19th century prints everyone came to see are on display everywhere. Technically they’re salt paper prints from calotype negatives, though often they are just referred to as calotypes. Fox Talbot, in search of a name for his process, first called it ‘photogenic drawing’; later he settled on calotype, a term he derived from the Greek word ‘kalos’ for beautiful. The imagery of the calotypes begins with scenes taken at the family estate of Lacock Abbey. Lacock Abbey, located in Wiltshire, England, was built as a nunnery in 1232. Henry VIII dispersed the nuns in 1535, and thereafter the buildings and grounds became a private residence. Fox Talbot found that the cloisters and grounds formed a perfect photo studio, indoors and out, in the early 1830s. The very first photograph he made successfully depicts a sunlit window of the cloister. A digital copy of this smallish print, entitled Latticed Window (With a Camera Obscura), 1835, substitutes for an original too light-sensitive to leave the safety of the Fox Talbot Museum (Lacock Abbey itself). Photograms of leaves and ferns dating from 1839-40 show the photogenic drawing process in its simplest form, as a kind of silhouette made without camera or negative. A photogram of a patterned textile is test-like yet formally invigorating (Fabric Sample, Specimen of Gauze, Lacock, England, 1839-40). As Fox Talbot gained more control in the early 1840s, he set up many allegorical scenes (The Soliloquy of The Broom, 1843, is a famous example). Several calotypes are picturesque views of the extended family in historic locations (Plymouth from Mount Edgcumbe, 1845) and many are portraits of Fox Talbot’s colleagues. Some of the imagery seems to be a curious kind of documentation, or experimentation in the formal qualities of picture-making: several versions of a table set for tea with the good china; rhythmic rows of a bookcase viewed straight on, arranged with the fancy silver service, glassware, or china (as in Articles of China, before January 1844). The elegant compositions aren’t accidental, and neither are value contrasts designed to wring the most out of a process that (even today, when you have all the answers) is difficult to control. Twenty-four of these calotypes first appeared in a six volume book called The Pencil of Nature. Produced at Lacock and at Fox Talbot’s own enterprise, the Reading Establishment, The Pencil of Nature was designed in part to entice entrepreneurs by suggesting a variety of practical applications for the process. Also on display are calotypes from two other books, Sun Pictures in Scotland and Travels Through France and Britain,both of which date from 1843-46. These scences of historic places and the world at large are more straightforwardly reportorial. Fox Talbot introduced the calotype process in France himself. Several displays at ICP were designed to hold calotype negatives away from the wall so that the viewer could discern their all important transparency and light-to-dark value reversal nearby the same-size final prints.

Fox Talbot set up a tone of miraculous wonder towards photogenic drawing in his early notes and in The Pencil of Nature. The fact that his practical yet poetic commentary on the prints also disclosed details of the process with empirical precision is worth noting. From today’s perspective, metaphorical language and scientific disclosure seem irreconcilable – either you believe in magic or you understand the scientific method, not both. But suppose the Romantic sensibility was just that: a peculiar synthesis of art and science in which momentary confusions were pleasurable, even intellectually sensual. Geoffrey Batchen convincingly argues in his 1997 book, Burning With Desire, that the calotype and the daguerreotype, different as they are from each other and a multitude of still other photo chemical processes, share just such a slippery magical-empirical foundation. As the exhibition at ICP demonstrated, the variety of subjects Fox Talbot set up to photograph convey a sense that the art, the magic, and the wonder of it all mesh evenly with the science of it all.
Let’s take the temperature of another Romantic poised between art and science. Shelley’s Queen Mabwas published in 1820 when the poet was 18. This work is literally split between a poem devoted to mythological – astronomical themes in the first half (a dreaming mortal is given a tour of the universe by Queen Mab), and a lengthy section of Notes in the second half claiming Newtonian, Keplerian, Gallilean (etc.) principles for the poem’s metaphorical images. Shelley implies that after the Enlightenment, the heavens can be poetic and pagan in addition to scientific and ‘reason’ based, but not divine.

Fast-forward 15 years from 1820 and consider the progress of two as yet unnamed mixtures of poetry and chemistry, the calotype and the daguerreotype. Imagine this: Fox Talbot is setting the table for tea in the cloister, calibrating a series of test exposures on a balmy morning in June while, over on the continent, the boulevard theaters of Paris sweep up after a rowdy night of Revolutionary rhetoric and tear-jerker, supernatural-themed melodrames. While Fox Talbot had been diligently following his literary, philological, and scientific pursuits, Louis Daguerre, child of the French Revolution with at best a rudimentary education, had been ‘studying’ the effects of quinquet lighting (oil lamps) and dramatic tension on audiences as an apprentice lighting designer. Parisian audiences of the Romantic era adored – adored – onstage special effects. The play or opera hardly mattered, some complained: only convincing illusion mattered. Daguerre, coming into his own at boulevard theaters and eventually L’Opera itself, used the new technology of gas jet artificial light and double-painted scrim (oil on thin calico rather than tempera on canvas) to intensify these effects in the 1830s. He might for instance guide audiences from a vision of nature’s moonlit, stormy wrath to a dreamy supernatural realm where young ballerinas rustled their dresses and extended their legs in the dazed hero’s dream. The greater the reality onstage, the greater the artifice backstage. By 1837, Daguerre had convinced Josephe Niecephore Niepce (a French gentleman scientist toiling away on a country estate, Chalon-Sur-Saone) to stop copying engravings and point his camera out the window, like a camera lucida. Once possessed of the mercury- iodine secrets pertaining to silver plated copper sheets, Daguerre began to gauge the entrepreneurial potential of his daguerreotype process against his fame as a lighting designer (and inventor of the Diorama, a proto-cinematic display). In the end he was quite content to accept a pension from the French government after the famous announcement of 1839 and retire to the countryside for the rest of his days.
The instant Francois Arago gave the daguerreotype process to the world as France’s gift, the Romantic era snapped shut. Brought into being by dreams as it were, photography became the ur- positivist tool of modern society, useful in science, industry, travel and reportage, medicine, forensics, commerce, art reproduction, etc. Fox Talbot obtained a patent for the calotype process in 1841 and, between his negative – positive innovation and those photochemical processes developed in France, Brazil, and other locales, it wasn’t long before photography spread throughout many countries to extraordinary effect. 150 years later, both science and photography are perceived differently. Early 20th century scientific theories have curiously softened edges constructed between science, psychology, and perception, and their effects continue to surface.

Susan Derges Yellow Moon -- Honeysuckle, 2002 unique ilfachrome photogram, 66 1/8 x 23 1/2 inches. Images courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York
Susan Derges Yellow Moon -- Honeysuckle, 2002 unique ilfachrome photogram, 66 1/8 x 23 1/2 inches. Images courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York

Susan Derges’s solo exhibition of 17 prints at Paul Kasmin Gallery, Under The Moon, presented a selection of work from 2001-2002. This show added up to a mid-career summation of her deep involvement with photography as a kind of microscope, method, and metaphor for feeling-based biology. Her practice of the medium is notably flexible, moving between conventional camera-based photography, color print and gelatin silver processes digital techniques, photograms, and constructed situations that defy decoding or render it moot. Typical of the latter are two series shown at Kasmin, The Streens andUnder the Moon. They suggest, both in imagery and format, an affinity for Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings. Derges, who was born in 1955 and lives and works in Devon, England, began her studies in 1973 at the Chelsea School of Art and Design. She received a British Council DAAD residency from 1976-77 and continued her education at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1977-79. She soon began to exhibit internationally, and engaged the attention of eminent British cultural historian Martin Kemp, who featured the artist in his series on science and art for the prestigious journal Nature during the 1980s. In addition to Kemp, a number of contemporary writers have seen Derges’s work as one facet of today’s technological, media inflected culture. Psychology, theories of body imagery, and Leonardo da Vinci-esque mythology play through the discourse on her work. Recently, Derges’s 2000-2001 year long residency at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford resulted in a series called Natural Magic. This series was inspired by a text of the same name published in 1558 by Renaissance scholar Giambattista della Porta.

In some respects, Fox Talbot seems to have set a precedent for Derges. Derges, if not exactly filled with wonder, cultivates a knowing mystery in her work while creatively exploiting various possibilities of the medium with all the means at her disposal, using color processors and industrial photographic technology as they are today. She too is based in the countryside and loves to work outdoors, clearly fascinated by natural phenomena and her own capacity as an observer. With Under The Moon, she found the nocturnal environment full of new challenges. Although Derges isn’t the first photographer to use the moon as a light source, she may among a handful who welcome color variations due to light pollution faintly reflecting off clouds. Her photographically constructed link between the poetic associations of lunar imagery, foliage, and streams of water in the environment is her own, evocative and gorgeously realized. Created in a format of approximately 66′ x 21′, the vertical prints are shaped like full length mirrors. Seen together in one room they almost begin to beckon the viewer like windows one could float through into their inky atmosphere. These nine photographs and three others in the gallery’s second room were termed ‘unique ilfachrome photograms’, meaning a length of photographic paper was exposed to light without an intermediary negative (also called ‘cameraless’ photographs). Three, from the series The Streens, also feature imagery water and foliage but were created in the darkroom as water flowing over light sensitive color paper was vibrated by sound during a flash exposure. Four other prints dated 2001 from Natural Magic depict fascinating interpretations of the elements air, fire, earth, and water. This series of color prints, conceived by more conventional means, was made during Derges’s aforementioned residency at the Museum of the History of Science.

Martin Kemp co-authored with the artist an ambitious catalogue, Susan Derges: Liquid Form, 1985-99 (London: Michael Hue-Williams Fine Art, 1999). Kemp’s essay places her work in a continuum ranging from Anna Atkins, a Victorian proto-photographer, to Harold Edgarton (famous for his color photos of a milk drop corolla, a bullet-pierced apple); Piet Mondrian; James Gleick (author of Chaos); and Frotjoff Capra (author of The Tao of Physics) and others listed in the catalogue bibliography. At the close of the catalogue essay, Kemp asks:

Could it be that the greatest role for the artist as we approach the end of the second millennium is to suggest through shared intuitions the ways that our eyes and minds may be granted poetic insight into the awesome presence of an implicate order that cannot be otherwise defined?

This is a big question and it’s not an unreasonable one to ask. Would that artists could fulfill that role, and promote world peace while they’re at it – perhaps they can and do. Fox Talbot’s Romantic-era scientific research may at first glance seem entirely different. It was after all inspired by the certainty, utopian as it appears in hindsight, that Enlightenment philosophy could form the basis of secular, democratic society. Reason and the study of nature’s laws, especially those derived from telescopes (lenses had been around since the 1600s) and microscopes, constituted a paradigm shift that gradually ushered in the modern era. As of the 1840s, photography added momentum to that shift even though it could not sustain the responsibility for truth and objectivity it was asked to bear. But Fox Talbot in Britain and Daguerre in France struggled to conceptualize photography as well as materialize it before the modern paradigm switched into high gear. Their science is full of optimism and beauty. Meanwhile, 150 years later, Derges has been evolving as an artist at a time when powerful revisions to the entire ‘objective’ era in photography moved toward a more sophisticated understanding of contemporary visual culture in society. Her science is full of relativism. It’s not the same, but she and the Romantics have something in common.

But for the same reason, these shows, together and individually, seem a tad innocent. Both focus strongly on the scientific aspect of photography even as they apply ‘science-photography’ to nature as subject. The circular logic of treating nature as a passive subject under the gaze of an observer using scientifically-based observation tools is not surprising in Fox Talbot’s case. Derges, although she has addressed the subject of observation, photography and science in ways that expose and investigate the self referential paradox, seems to stop just short of a more profound engagement with her intuition about the subject. In an era that knows there’s more to science than… more science, philosopher Michel Serres (for instance) finds issues of language and law to be deeply intertwined with nature and science. Nature is not passive in the Serres universe, but more like Kemp’s ‘awesome presence’ – a force that can not only react to observation, but fight back under duress. How this would manifest in an artist’s work is the question I’d add to Kemp’s.