The Vessel of Greater Genius?: Art and Nature in Early Photography


 ‘I am but the humble servant

of the brilliant creator;

…vassal of the hand…’

– Cilèa, Adriana Lecouvreur


As with all novel things, photography posed a crisis of classification to those present at its birth. At once both an object of science and the architect of images sourced from the natural world, photography found itself in uneasy rapport with the graphic arts, a proverbial bastard child. Unsurprisingly, therefore, much energy has been spent debating the origins and utility of the photographic process, and on making attributions of inheritance predicated on more fundamental criteria, that is, seeking the essence of the thing, a kind of photographic ‘truth’.1 Within the vector space of such discussions, enduring tensions emerge between art, nature and the ‘real’, between the mechanical qualities of the camera and the individual efforts of the photographer.


Our purpose, then, is to review a selection of early photographs as statements from an ongoing discourse regarding the character and purpose of photography. Sequenced longitudinally, this selection unfurls like film, and the photographic moment becomes but one point in a moving narrative. In this manner, the individual properties of the photographs are subordinated to their value as attitudinal signifiers, and our review thus errs towards illustration over analysis.


Image [Figure 1: Fossils]


When, in 1839, Daguerre announced the daguerreotype to the public, he unequivocally embedded photography within the sciences. The daguerreotype, he claimed, was a “chemical and physical process” independent of human agency. Thus, the photographer did not, in his activities, reproduce nature: he allowed nature to reproduce herself.2 Fossils (1839) is summative of Daguerre’s position. There is little concern here for artistic arrangement: instead, the viewer is invited to marvel at the clean delineation of each object, their “accuracy and perfection of detail”.3 Daguerre’s fossils are posed for academic, not aesthetic, inspection, and their baldness is revelatory, entrenching them firmly within the ‘real’. The daguerreotype, then, is no pretender to the graphic arts, but is instead their accessory, something through which they might acquire a “new impulse”.4



[Figure 2: Botanical Specimen]


Such attitudes find a parallel in Talbot’s crisp, forensic Botanical Specimen (1839) and his Royal Society address of the same year, Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing, a careful report on the new technology and its derivative uses, wherein photography itself is celebrated as a validation of the inductive method.5 Like Daguerre, Talbot accepts a perfect equivalence between sense and truth. To see is to know, and the passivity of camera sight, which substitutes nature’s pencil for that of the artist, permits the most truthful knowledge.6 Nature, then, is honoured, her agent – the photographer – ignored.7


By 1844 and the publication of the first volume of The Pencil of Nature, however, Talbot’s position has shifted. Although Talbot prefaces his work with a cautious rearticulation of the uncertain heredity of photography, insistent still on the solitary involvement of nature’s hand, The Pencil of Nature is no passive sketch of “Photogenic Drawing”.8 Instead, as Hofkosh notes, it is deeply concerned with “what photography represents and how it signifies”.9 For the modest purposes of our review, the importance of The Pencil of Nature may be appraised through an examination of Plate VI, The Open Door (1844).


Image [Fig. 3: The Open Door]


Unlike Daguerre’s Fossils, or indeed Talbot’s earlier Botanical Specimen, the elements of The Open Door seem almost calculated in their arrangement. There is a pleasing symmetry to the photograph, with the visual motif of parallelism articulated within both the regular and repeating verticals of the building’s masonry and the harmonious coincidence of the broom handle with the line of shadow which bisects the open door. The net effect is to lead the eye towards the centre of the image: the unlit interior beyond the open door. Within, Hofkosh spies the silhouette of modernity, which she defines as a yearning to render the imperceptible.10 Such a reading seems congruent with Talbot’s own commentary, which, invoking the authority of the Dutch masters, frames The Open Door in terms of an artistic sensibility which finds the classic amongst the quotidian.11 Justly, therefore, Hofkosh understands Talbot’s “picturesque imaginings” as a recognition of the distinguishable limits of sensory and camera perception, wherein the co-ordinating factor is that of the “painter’s eye”.12


It is worth asking, though there can be no correct response, whether the distinguishing qualities of the calotype – its mellow softness and lack of detail relative to the daguerreotype – were in any way persuasive to Talbot’s aesthetic interpretation of the photograph. Whatever the inspiration, The Pencil of Nature, while it argues no case for the photographer as an independent, artistic entity, nevertheless situates Talbot at the vanguard of growing acknowledgement as to the space between ‘sense truth’ and ‘camera truth’. Eastlake, in her 1857 review, remarks that it is in the unfocused efforts of early photography that the photographic image is most consonant with sight.13 Thus, Talbot prefigures pictorialism insofar as he accommodates dissimilarity between the photographic image and the ‘real’, a distance necessarily mediated by the tentative notion of the photographer as artist. It remained, however, for the pictorialists to make the substantial conversion from this position to the profession of photography as an independent art form, “a distinctive means of individual expression”.14 This they pursued through the simultaneous translation of photography to the exhibition space, which, Krauss notes, had since emerged as the measure of artistic merit, and a revision of the place of personal agency within the photographic process.15


Robinson’s photographer is no “mere mechanical realist”, but instead an operative part of the photographic process.16 With agency and mechanisation in equilibrium, however, to acknowledge the instrumentality of the photographer demands an equivalent diminution in the derivative and replicable qualities of the photograph.17 The emphasis of the pictorialists thus falls on artistic interventions: combination printing and the platinum process. “Expression, not depiction”, as Bunnell describes it.18


Image[Figure 4: Summer Evening]


Robinson’s Summer Evening (1880) exemplifies the anatomical beauty typical of pictorialist images: closely observed value contrast frames the photograph and distinguishes its hemispheres – land and sky. Within the foreground, an apparently organic grouping of cows echoes the contour of a small, muddied creek, the line of which is itself an elegant mirror of the heavens. There are, however, balder statements of artistic sentiment to be found here. Careful inspection reveals the manipulations of the photographer, for the cloud detail evident in the sky is strikingly absent from its reflection. The use of techniques such as combination printing to, for example, improve an over-exposed sky is indicative of the pictorialists’ renegotiation of photography’s relationship with the ‘real’; Robinson, in his writings, locates photographic ‘truth’ not within realism but within the ideal.19 Thus, the camera, defined previously by its fidelity to nature, becomes the agent of man’s inner eye. In general, Bunnell notes this shift from the representation of the ‘real’ towards that of the imagined space as a defining feature of the pictorialist movement.20


With time, monographs on photography themselves assume the static and momentary qualities of the photographic image. Yet, insofar as photography continues to mediate our experience of the external world, charged with the capacity to describe – and, perhaps, even to distil – ‘truth’, discussions on the character and purpose of photography are sure to keep their currency.


[1,240 words]






Daguerre, L., Fossils (1839), accessed 12-Jan-13

Robinson, H., Summer Evening (1880), accessed 12-Jan-13

Talbot, W.F., Botanical Specimen (1839), accessed 12-Jan-13

Talbot, W.F., The Open Door (1844), accessed 12-Jan-13





Bunnell, P., ‘Pictorial Photography’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 51, No. 2 (1992), pp. 10-5

Daguerre, L., Daguerreotype (1839) [Moodle Site]

Eastlake, E., Photography (1857) [Moodle Site]

Hofkosh, S., ‘Early Photography’s Late Romanticism’, European Romantic Review, Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 293-304

Krauss, R., ‘Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View’, Art Journal, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Winter 1982), pp. 311-9

Robinson, H., Idealism, Realism, Expressionism [Moodle Site]

Stieglitz, A., Photo-Secession (1903) [Moodle Site]

Talbot, W.F., Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing (1839) [Moodle Site]

Talbot, W.F., The Pencil of Nature (1844-6), accessed 12-Jan-13


1p. 313, R. Krauss, ‘Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View’, Art Journal, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Winter, 1982)

2p. 13, L. Daguerre, Daguerreotype (1839)

3p. 12, ibid.

4p. 12, ibid.

5W.F. Talbot, Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing (1839)




9p. 296, S. Hofkosh, ‘Early Photography’s Late Romanticism’, European Romantic Review, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Jun., 2011)

10p. 293, Hofkosh, ‘Early Photography’

11p. 6, W.F. Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (1844-6)

12p. 296, Hofkosh, ‘Early Photography’

13p. 91, E. Eastlake, Photography (1857)

14p. 167, A. Stieglitz, Photo-Secession (1903)

15p. 312, R. Krauss, ‘Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View’, Art Journal, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Winter, 1982)

16p. 92, H. Robinson, Idealism, Realism, Expressionism

17p. 13, P. Bunnell, ‘Pictorial Photography’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 51, No. 2 (1992)

18p. 11, ibid.

19p. 92, Robinson, Idealism

20p. 14, Bunnell, ‘Pictorial Photography’


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