Bright Sparks: audio trail

Listen to curator Geoffrey Batchen and five contemporary artists discuss the legacy of Talbot and experimental photography in photographic practice today.

These audio excerpts accompany the exhibition Bright Sparks: Photography and the Talbot Archive.

A1: Geoffrey Batchen on the exhibition

A2: Alison Rossiter on photographic papers

A3: Jo Gane on calotypes

A4: Martin Parr on photobooks

A5: Anne Ferran on negative sandwiches 

A6: Geoffrey Batchen on Talbot

A7: Garry Fabian Miller on the darkroom


Audio transcripts


Hi, my name is Geoff Batchen. I'm the curator of Bright Sparks, the exhibition that you've just joined.

This is an exhibition devoted to the life and times of William Henry Fox Talbot, England's claimant to the invention of photography.

A number of people had experimented with photography from the 1790s on, but William Henry Fox Talbot was the man who established the negative positive system of photography that came to dominate the medium in the 100 years or so after his life.

When you expose a piece of light sensitive paper in a camera, the image that appears on that paper is a reverse tone version of what the camera is looking at. This is what we call a negative. Talbot learned a way to fix, or at least delay the development of that negative, that is, to create a reverse tone image.

And then in a kind of brain wave, he discovered a way to use another piece of light sensitive paper to make a positive print from that negative.

One of the things we wanted to do in this exhibition was underline the degree to which Talbot is still relevant to the present, so of course we have some wonderful early photographs made by William Henry Fox Talbot, but we tried to put those in conversation with subsequent photographers. Trying to show that Talbot inaugurated many genres, many approaches to photography that later photographers have taken up and played with in a creative way.

The Japanese American artist Hiroshi Sugimoto borrowed Talbot's electrostatic glass rod that is the rod that Talbot himself used to generate electric sparks in his experiments with electricity. Sugimoto borrowed the rod, generated sparks and recorded those sparks in very large photographic prints. And then donated one of those prints to the Bodleian Library and you can see it here on display.

So here we have a direct interaction between one of photography's most important inventors, and a contemporary artist who's trying to himself conduct a kind of conversation with this origin point in photography's history.


My name is Alison Rossiter, and I am a photographer who has not used a camera in perhaps the last 20 years because I discovered how beautiful photographic papers – old photographic papers – are. I have worked in a darkroom my entire life, and now I am using all of those skills to guide these century old papers through to completion. And you are seeing a final print that came out of a darkroom in New Jersey in the United States.

The beginning of my idea was an accident. I was buying old film on eBay and someone sent me a large box of paper from 1946, is when it was supposedly expired. And I tested the paper thinking that: “oh, if it's nice, I can use it, I can print on it”. And what I found was a sheet of paper after it had been through the chemistry that looked like a graphite drawing, a completely abstract graphite drawing; and the grey tones were made by the failure of the emulsion to keep its light sensitive properties as it was originally designed.

I was touching that paper fifty years after it was made, so it was still possible to use the paper for some light sensitivity.

But I found the latent image far more exciting, just simply developed, than anything that I could do to it. It was showing me what time was doing to the papers, what was changing all on its own. In fact, each package of paper that I collect is a little camera of sorts. Each one of these sheets of paper has a life. Its gelatin. It will react to the atmosphere. It will bend. It will flatten. They are living things. They tell me a story, the sheet of paper I pull out and develop in my dark room, has a story of its own history revealed in totally abstract marks. You know there is no landscape, there is no portrait of a person.

In the print that is in the exhibition. I suspect that those beautiful marks – the geometric shapes – are probably shadows of the wrapping paper within the package. And in that sense, they're predictable. I've seen similar things throughout my development. But that one really looks like a window. It has some representational connotation, but it really is a found photogram that the package made itself. And I'm its guide.


I'm Jo Gane, I'm an artist and photographer and I work with early photographic processes with the same materials and chemicals that Talbot was working with in 1839 and throughout the 1840s.

I've remade a print that Talbot made in the early 1840s of a stained glass saint’s head that was painted in the 15th century, so of an ancient piece of glass. The original couldn't be shown because it had too much silver in it, so I remade it and share that with you here.

What was nice about this process was handling the original material that Talbot worked with really kind of gives you an understanding of how the materiality of the object and the chemicals affect the way that the print looks.

Talbot’s process really revolutionised photography because of the ability to make multiple copies of prints. Multiple copies from a negative multiple prints. So here we have a negative which was made on location at the Bodleian with the original piece of glass. And the negative is the original, the master copy, if you like, which was made by placing the glass onto the calotype paper which had been coated with an iodizing solution to make it more light sensitive and the tones are reversed in the negative. So what is light in the glass comes out dark and vice versa.

The negative is then placed on top of another sheet of paper which is coated just with the salt solution and silver solution, so it's slightly less light sensitive and printed to reverse the tones back to how we would expect to see them to a positive way around.

And that process can be repeated multiple times, so we can make as many copies as we've got time to print really.

And what was nice about working with these same materials that Talbot used was developing that understanding of how practised Talbot's hand must have been in using these materials, and realising how the slightest touch in how the chemicals, the paper, the glass is handled, can affect the way that the print looks massively.

It’s really interesting to know about how the weight of the brush, the weight of the cotton wool as you're brushing the chemicals onto the paper, and the very makeup of the paper itself in the manufacture of the paper, affects the chemical process. And the handling of the chemicals can give you stripes or spots or smudges on the paper.

It was nice watching the saint appear in the dark room felt like a kind of a small miracle and helps you to imagine what Talbot must have felt when he was in the darkroom as well, so inhabiting that bodily imaginative space of Talbot when he's making these prints was really quite a treat and quite an interesting process.


I think the photo book is really the ultimate statement that a photographer can make.

You're in charge of the images, in charge of the narrative, you have an impact on how it's going to be printed, what paper. So it's the ultimate statement. You'll never meet a photographer that doesn't want to do a photo book. And in fact, I've done over 120 of them and I'm still excited when I see it for the first time and look at the book and think great, that's another statement that I've made that can be part of my legacy.

People don't throw books away. Magazines get thrown away, exhibitions come and go, the photobook, you just don't have it in you to throw a photobook away.

I think nearly every photographer you meet, they'll have seen a book or sometimes a print, but normally a book that sort of changed their life and made them want to be a photographer.

I guess the Pencil of Nature was hugely important because it really was the first photo book, so he [Talbot] had the foresight to understand that the book was probably going to be the most important, you know, if you like legacy of what he did with photography. And has made a book which you know is still being collected and shown here today, over 170 years later. What an amazing thing to have achieved.

Photographs really don't work singly. I mean, you can have a nice image which you can take out of context, but the real achievement of photographers is to make a statement and that has, you know, beginning and end, a middle, a narrative. You know you're making the point. You know, you're trying to communicate what it was that you found in the subject matter that moved you, and you're trying to make sure that the photographer gets that into the book, and therefore it's there for the reader to understand, interpret, and, you know, appreciate.

You get your images – you know these days you print it out, I'd always say print out them and have them separate don't just have them on the screen – and then you can start arranging the pictures into an order. You have to make sure that the message you're trying to get across is there to be seen. Sometimes you have to put pictures in because they are part of the narrative. Sometimes you put them in just because they're great. Because you know you can't really have a book or say 70 images and all, they're all going to be great. It's impossible. You know, there are very few books that have achieved that. Maybe The Americans by Robert Frank.

The first photo book I did was called Bad Weather. And it's literally me going out when the weather was bad, photography is associated with sunny days and everything. So I wanted to reverse that and I took myself to boring places. I went to motorway service stations. I went to town city centres. I want to do interesting pictures in boring places, but in bad weather.

I guess my favourite Martin Parr book is The Last Resort. It's about my relationship to new Brighton at the time it was exciting changing from black and white to colour using flash. Having this different sort of palette, I wanted to contrast, you know, the shabby backdrop with this sort of day visitors and that was really the whole point of the book, and I think that message still comes across 35 years later.


My name is Anne Ferran. I live and work in Australia in Sydney, Australia. I'm an artist whose main medium over many years now has been photography.

One of the works that I have in this exhibition is a photograph of my daughter. It was taken a long time ago when she was young, very young.

The photograph is overlaid with a stoney kind of texture, which to me is actually in a way more important to the image than the fact that she's holding her hand over her face. I like the stone texture because it speaks of a whole lot of things that a portrait doesn't necessarily speak of things like youth and ageing and time and decay and death actually are all, I think, sort of subtly introduced into that image by that stoney texture.

This is a photographic technique that was achieved by taking two photographs. One was the photograph of the young woman's face – my daughter – and the other one was a photograph of a piece of stone with a particular kind of texture. And you take those two negatives instead of introducing one of them into the film carrier in the enlarger, you put both of them and it is called a negative sandwich. And you make this “neg sandwich” and you make sure that the two things are touching perfectly right across the with the film and you project the light through that, and somehow they fuse as if they were meant to be like that.

So the shadows of the face become the shadows and the stone. The stone was perfectly flat - it had no depth at all. The depth all comes from the face, and it's the lovely illusion, I think.


In January 1839, Talbot generously shared the details of his photogenic drawing process with the world. He didn't take out a patent on it, for example, he just published the details like a good scientist.

But by the time he came to invent the calotype process, he decided maybe there was going to be some money in it, so he took out a patent on the calotype process. This meant that if people wanted to use it for commercial reasons, for example to make portraits, they had to pay him a licence fee.

He obviously thought this was a good idea, but it in fact prevented further improvements to the process and resulted in endless legal litigation for him.

It wasn't until after 1851, when he relaxed his patent rights on the calotype process, that the process itself was considerably improved and became much more widely used.

In 1846, Talbot had 7,000 positive prints from calotype negatives published in an art journal called The Art Union. And unfortunately for Talbot, those photographs all faded within about a week of the journal being issued. This caused a major embarrassment for him and in practical terms, he never made another photograph for the rest of his life.

So that was in June of 1846 and he died in 1877.

Instead, he spent the last 30 years of his life trying to overcome the obvious fallibility of his calotype photographs.

He invented a number of types of photomechanical reproduction. That is, he experimented with ways to transfer the photographic image onto a metal plate, which could then be etched so that we have an impression of the photographic image in the steel plate.

And then you could ink that plate and make multiple ink on paper copies of photographs.

In other words, Talbot helped to introduce the photomechanical reproduction that we take for granted today in newspapers, magazines, art books, et cetera.

In many ways, this was his major contribution to twentieth century culture.


For me, the reason I decided on working with plants was I was cultivating a garden and so through that I observed that way plants grew, and I saw the way that the light made all of this visible and was a generating force.

And I thought, well why do I not just take the leaf and place it directly in relationship to light and the paper?

And in my case, I developed a method which was not the method used by Fox Talbot and Anna Atkinson - people like that where they placed the object in direct relationship to the paper and then shown the light.

I chose to place the object in space and allowed light to pass through it and travel.

And I would suggest the equivalent to it would be if you were in a Victorian church and you had a stained glass window – perhaps made by William Morris with foliage forms in it – and the light came through it and through its image, and it would fall on the surface. That's the equivalent of what I was doing in an enlarger.

That only happened because I had a relationship to gardening in the way that Fox Talbot and his workers and family and partners and wives and so on did. And so did I. And so do many people, and that's how I began to work with plants. And then you realise that you are basically working in the tradition of where photography began.

Two pairs of prints - I call them Ivy Couples because they present the male and the female leaf next to each other - and we have two pairings in the exhibition. You know, they just seem to belong in a period of early photography, and they're about closed down sexuality, I suppose, aren't they? You know of, hiding that sexual form by putting foliage in front of it and such like, yeah.

To make them, I would have spent time in the woods here, next to my studio and gathered a group of leaves, brought them back to my studio, gone into the dark room, and then using the enlarger I would then pass the light through the leaf, which becomes a transparency and then it makes its image onto the piece of paper and then I can, you know I can decide the scale of the image by the way, the enlarger allows you to do that and generally with the plant pictures I try to maintain and integrity to the scale of the object.

Chemical photography in a dark room was this kind of preeminent site where you as an artist could work directly with light and leave its trace onto a piece of paper and that's what photography had allowed me to do.

You know, I'd started off accepting that photography was a camera based medium. And then my relationship to printmaking was determined by what the camera recorded onto a negative, and I knew that what I was interested in was the materiality of the print and the light. Which made the thing visible on that surface, and this intermediary of the negative was not really helpful.