Lacock Abbey

Images of Lacock Abbey and The Fox Talbot Museum with Study Diary Text

Photography Degree Study Visit – 30th August 2017

I’d been studying photography for a couple of months when I made this visit to Lacock Abbey and the Fox Talbot Museum. Learning about photographic history was a lot more engaging than I had initially thought it would be and the visit inspired me to create a lot of new work, as well as revealing artificial separations between science and art that have been created since the invention of the medium.

The Fox Talbot Museum isn’t very large, but it’s fascinating if you’re into photography. Before I arrived I had thought that William Henry Fox Talbot had produced the first photograph, but no, apparently that was Joseph Nicephore Niepce, in about 1826 with an exposure of around 8 hours on a pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea (1). So, being British I’m obviously upset that we didn’t get there first, but being European too I’m glad it was the French.

What Fox Talbot made was the first ever photographic negative. This was of some latticed windows in his house, which he rather imaginatively entitled ‘Latticed Window, Lacock Abbey’.

You can see several of my own photos of this same window in the gallery below, three of which are taken on Fuji Instant Wide; the rest are digital. Given that the historical significance of Fox Talbot is the production of a negative, it seems odd that I’ve captured it on everything but. Next time I’ll remember to bring a 35mm camera.

Fuji Instant of Latticed Windows, Lacock Abbey

Looking at the window I found myself wondering if when originally setting up his equipment Fox Talbot was aiming to capture the view through the latticed window or an image of the window itself, but as someone who seems to be taking images of or through windows most of the time at the moment I’m happy with the subject matter either way.

Fox Talbot experimented with numerous variations of light sensitive chemicals and paper, with various levels of success. I found it very moving that he was driven by his inability to draw. He invented a photographic process giving the ability to produce numerous prints from one negative, driven essentially by what he saw as a personal flaw. To me that speaks volumes about the way people respond to their perceived weaknesses, and I found it a lesson all on it’s own.

Anyway, the museum explains the various processes Fox Talbot went through, the different chemicals and papers he tried and breakthroughs he made, and a few appropriate items and prints are displayed alongside. There is also a display of vintage cameras, chemicals and darkroom equipment including an enlarger that looks like a model used for War of the Worlds. There were some cameras from the Fenton Collection that I was able to pick up and have a play with. It was quite useful as I have an old Kodak camera and there were parts I wasn’t sure of. With the help of a museum guide I cleared up that the red ‘button’ next to the viewfinder on my old camera is actually a small spirit level.

Upstairs was a display of photographic prints by Thomas Kellner. His ideas are based on cubism and aim to force the viewer to come to the subject of the image with a fresh appreciation. You can see his work if you Google him, but essentially his architectural images are composed of what look like film contact sheets all stuck together to make one very unusual view.

I really liked the idea of unusual views of familiar landmarks like this. The material nature of the film is not hidden, but revealed and the work also reveals the presence both of the photographer and the equipment. Some images worked better than others; to me, the wider buildings were more successful than tall thin buildings like towers (Big Ben or Brooklyn Bridge for example). I like images of architecture, and converging verticals are a real problem that I can’t deal with without software as I don’t have a tilt-shift lens. I think I might try doing something like this myself as it’s a totally different way to represent architecture. I’ve seen the idea of using strips of photographic negatives to make an image before but I thought it was interesting. Another thing I noticed is the wording. After my second tutorial on 24th August I had been working on my notes and had thought about the idea of fracturing an image to represent the fracturing of the UK after Brexit. I’d cut up an image I had taken on instant film to represent this idea of fracturing, but wasn’t feeling entirely happy with it so this could be another avenue to explore.

Lacock Abbey cloister was closed for filming (I think they might be filming Fantastic Beasts II but they’re not telling the staff and it’s a secret so you don’t know), but access to the first floor abbey rooms was still available and it was interesting to see Fox Talbot’s working environment. The windows where he took the first photographic negative are nicely set up as a photo opportunity for visitors and being a photography student I had to take the bait. Lacock village is interesting and quaint, I’d really like to have had more time to explore it. As it was, I didn’t even get to the chocolate shop.

I can see why Fox Talbot and his family were inspired to record their environment with painting and with various photographic processes; it’s very beautiful. Obviously Fox Talbot’s desire to record botanical specimens was a major drive for him, but this was already accomplished before the production of his negative technique. Reading the various quotes dotted around attributed to him, art and the beauty of the natural environment and wanting to be able to faithfully capture that were essential to him and drove his scientific research into photography. Given my background in science I found him really inspiring as there seems to me to be  a wedge between disciplines now that obviously didn’t exist in the past.

Images of the museum, abbey and the Sign of the Angel pub in the village are included in the gallery below. Many of them are views of or through windows, or of reflections. Some of these images have had some basic corrections in Lightroom.

  1. Badger, G. and Davies, M. (n.d.). The genius of photography.

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