Now a book about photography and its discovery might not strike you as being frightfully interesting or exciting and in the hands of another author or authors, you might be right. However, when one of the co-writers of Capturing the Light is Helen Rappaport, one of my favourite historians and a writer who has the knack of drawing the reader into the world of which she is writing, then you are on pretty safe ground.
When I started reading Capturing the Light I knew it would be interesting and was confident that I would have no problem engaging with the story but I did not expect to find it so fascinating that I sat up late in bed one night to finish it. The subtitle of the book is 'A true story of genius, rivalry and the birth of photography' and the two main protagonists in this narrative, Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre are so totally opposite of each other in style and temperament that it is impossible not to want to read on.
Both men spent years experimenting on the different methods of photography, struggling to find the key to creating and fixing an image and both in ignorance of each other's researches. Henry Fox Talbot, an English gentleman running his country estate, carrying out scientific experiments in his own lab and keeping meticulous records of all his experiments and results, everything noted and nothing left to chance; Louis Daguerre a flamboyant French showman, a scenery painter, showman and Barnum type figure out for fame and fortune. No two men could be more different. Daguerre kept no notes and we have no detailed workings of his own experimentation, disaster and failures before he managed to produce what we know as the Daguerretype and beat Fox Talbot to the finishing line. My impression is that he was a bit of a chancer and, though interested in science and with a working knowledge, he tended to team up with others more professional and efficient than he and ride on their coat tails. Talbot, on the other hand, quietly beavered away and was not so interested in the transient glory and fame which such a discovery could have brought him.
He had a fiercely ambitious mother Lady Elisabeth Feilding who was angry when her son would not push or further his claims to be the discoverer of the photographic process and was jealous of the slurs cast on his reputation and the accusations of copying Daguerre. Though disappointed at the lack of credit given to him in the wake of the announcement of the breakthrough by Daguerre it seems to this reader that it was more his reputation as a scientist in the community of his peers that he wanted to secure and to be appreciated. I find his modesty rather refreshing and found myself getting rather fond of Henry as the book progressed. He found little fame and fortune but lived his quiet and retired life, publishing scientific papers and continuing with his work while the flamboyant Daguerre enjoyed his time in the limelight and his fame. Once he had hit the big time it seemed to me that he enjoyed it, had a wonderful few years and then retired to the country to enjoy his wealth and comfort and did nothing else to further the advance of photography. This did make me wonder, as I have mentioned above, just how much of his discovery was due to him and not to those he worked with. Surely if he had been that brilliant and inventive more would have been heard from him?
There are plenty of scientific facts and figures and details of the photographic processes given in Capturing the Light and they are not boring, nor do they pall. Roger Watson, who obviously produced all this information for the book, is a world authority on the early history of photography and knows what he is talking about. Obviously hugely knowledgeable and enthused by his subject he manages to make the discussion of which chemical works better than another wildly interesting. The collaboration between Roger and Helen was an inspired one and has resulted in a rattling yarn, a good read and unputdownable. Roger is currently the curator of the Fox Talbot Museum at Lacock Abbey which I have visited some years ago. A beautiful place.
My father used to be an amateur photographer and I remember as a child sitting in his dark room, bathed in red light and watching him put his prints in chemical trays and the sense of wonderment when I saw a picture emerge on the paper has never left me. Photography has always been a hobby of mine and I have progressed through a Kodak box camera, a Halina 35 mm which I used for over twenty years, then a panoramic camera then through to digital and have loved them all. I also once had a brother in law who was a professional photographer, he was from the USA and worked for a while for Kodak at Rochester in New York State. I went on a tour of the plant and visited the museum of Photography in that city so photography is very much in my blood. I am forever grateful to him for teaching me tricks of the trade and also about 'framing' a picture, keeping something of interest in the front of a land or sea scape and oh the hours we spent arguing the individual merits of Kodachrome or Ekatchrome. I preferred Ektachrome as it was a film that gave you better exposure for indoor shots but the colour quality was not so good. Of course now we have digital and photoshop so no worries at all.
A really interesting and engaging book and left me feeling full of admiration for these pioneers of photography who have given us the chance to use a process that we now take for granted. We never should as I think it is a miracle.