Preserving the Forgotten

Preserving the Forgotten—William Henry Fox Talbot, Photography, and the Antique

Mirjam Brusius

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) is primarily remembered as the pioneer of photography. This is reinforced by the disposition of his papers, notably the separation of the notebooks that document Talbot's photographic innovations from the rest of his archive. However, Talbot was a universal scholar, whose work encapsulates intriguing tensions between the past and the future in nineteenth-century science and society. The aim of this project was to situate the work of the inventor of the positive-negative photographic method on paper in a wider historical and scientific context. The PhD thesis focused on Talbot’s interest in photographic inventions in connection to his lifelong and significant scholarship in disciplines dealing with the past, like archeology, classics and Assyriology and his role as a leading decipherer of cuneiform script. Mirjam Brusius argued that examining Talbot’s interest in the Antique, documented in his hitherto hardly considered non-photographic notebooks in the British Library, exposes new opportunities to gain further understanding of his photographic achievements.

In phenomenological terms, Talbot’s photographic achievements and his scholarship in the Antique have substantial characteristics in common. Both keep fading objects from falling into oblivion. Talbot offers an exceptional case study to show how these “disciplines” have been closely linked to each other in practical terms, ever since photography was invented. Talbot had immediately suggested that archeologists could use photography for their archeological studies. Thus, photography—although still in its infancy—started to become an instrument of comparison and preservation for other scholars around Talbot and an institutional part of archaeology. The Victorian fascination for the past and especially Mesopotamia sets the major background of the thesis.

Funding Institutions

AHRC, Cambridge Trust, Gerda Henkel Stiftung