11 May 2015
The Bodleian Libraries has launched an ambitious project to create a new web-based research tool that will allow scholars and members of the public to view and search the complete photographic works of British photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot.
This online catalogue raisonné will include images of thousands of photographs and negatives by Talbot and his close circle. It will shed new light on Talbot's photographic discoveries and will invite academics and the public to help fill in the blanks about mystery images.
William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) was one of the greatest polymaths of the Victorian age, and is most famous today for being the British 'founder of photography'. He recognised that negatives, with their ability to make multiple prints on paper, would define the central path of photography right through to the digital age. During his career Talbot and his collaborators created more than 4,500 distinct images. Approximately 25,000 of his original negatives and prints are known to survive worldwide. Some are held in the Bodleian's recently acquired W.H.F. Talbot archive, while other major collections are held by the British Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Media Museum and numerous other institutions, and in the ownership of private individuals worldwide. Collectively, these negatives and prints map the technical and aesthetic progress of the new art of photography. However there is still more that researchers want to find out about these works and, more broadly, the invention of photography and the emergence of Talbot himself as the first photographic artist.
'A Catalogue Raisonné of Talbot's work will help unlock the enormous artistic, documentary and technical information embodied in these images,' said Professor Larry J. Schaaf, Director of the Talbot catalogue raisonné at the Bodleian Libraries and also a Visiting Professor of Art History at the University of Oxford.
Catalogues raisonnés are common in the world of art, serving as a detailed academic inventory of an artist's work. However, nothing of this scale has been attempted for photography. The website, due to go live later in 2015, will be an essential resource for scholars in the history of photography, history of art and the history of science. It will include a great deal of documentary content, such as early images of cities and landscapes that will be of interest in many fields. The images of prints and negatives on the website will be accompanied by notes, annotations and essays with links to relevant publications and other sites. The resource will include the work of Talbot as well as his close circle of family and colleagues who collaborated in his photographic work, including his wife Constance and his mother Lady Elisabeth Feilding.
In contrast to traditional catalogues raisonnés, which are often published as printed volumes, the Talbot catalogue will be a dynamic online publication, allowing material to be published in draft form in order to make as much information available as early as possible. The website will invite members of the public and scholars from a range of fields - from architecture to botany - to add to the catalogue, for example by helping identify unknown people or buildings in photographs or contributing research related to Talbot's life and work.
'With a volunteer army of contributors, I hope we'll discover new photographs and that new research questions will arise,' said Schaaf. He adopted a similar interactive approach as founder and editor of the online database The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot, which contains annotated full transcriptions of more than 10,000 of Talbot's letters.
Schaaf has been researching Talbot for more than four decades and has studied Talbot originals in nearly all collections worldwide. His research was greatly enhanced by the generous co-operation of Talbot's descendants at Lacock Abbey, particularly the late Anthony Burnett-Brown, the great-great grandson of the inventor.
Schaaf developed pioneering databases of Talbot's work in the early 1980s, before digital humanities became the force that it is today. The Bodleian's Talbot Catalogue Raisonné will build on these extensive databases and present them in a modern and publicly accessible form. It will contain records on the entire corpus of images produced by Talbot and his close circle. In order to add a rich collection of images to the catalogue raisonné, the project will draw on collections from a number of institutions including the National Media Museum in Bradford, the J. Paul Getty Museum, The Smithsonian Institution and the British Library. Generous funding has been provided by the William Talbott Hillman Foundation.
A blog has been launched to provide updates on the development of the William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonné.