Photography: Picture Perfect

It's not the whole truth, but a good part of the reason William Henry Fox Talbot became one of the fathers of photography was that he could not draw well. Talbot (1800-1877) grew up at a time when people sketched picturesque spots on their travels. This upper-class Englishman became so frustrated on his honeymoon at his lack of artistic skill, so the story goes, that he threw himself into developing a process whereby waterfalls and mountain vistas might be recorded mechanically. The result, a decade or so later, was the positive-negative process that Talbot called "photogenic drawing"--and we call photography. Unlike the work of his competitors, such as Daguerre, Talbot's photographs could be reproduced again and again. Think of them as the baby pictures of mass culture.

If Talbot, a member of Parliament who also translated Egyptian hieroglyphics and Assyrian cuneiform script, lacked the dexterity necessary to produce a decent drawing, he certainly possessed an artist's eye. That's the first thing that strikes you at the wonderfully comprehensive show of his work on display at New York's International Center of Photography through Feb. 16 and from March 30 to June 15 at San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts (there is also a superb catalog of the show, "First Photographs," published by powerHouse). A lot of Talbot's images--men playing chess, glassware and seashells, a close-up of lace or a page of printed text, the way a broom casts a shadow in a doorway or the way light breaks up when it strikes a haystack--were meant to merely demonstrate the camera's capabilities. In fact, they do much more. Talbot showed us as well as any photographer ever has that a camera, with its eye always lusting after light, can uncover wonders that a painter might scorn. The photographs that resulted possess a guileless infatuation with material things, and they teach us, even today, the joys of simply staring hard at the world.