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William Henry Fox Talbot’s influence on photography was immense, from his introduction of the negative in 1839, allowing multiple prints of the same image, to his invention of a salted paper process. The online William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonné, launched this month by the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, is a portal to all 25,000 surviving images in Talbot’s archive.
“There are actually 25,000 surviving prints and negatives, but about 4,500 surviving ‘image ideas’ — sometimes more than one print survives,” Professor Larry J. Schaaf, project director for the Talbot Catalogue Raisonné and a visiting professor of art at the University of Oxford, told Hyperallergic. “Each is important to me, having been made by hand; each has Talbot’s DNA on the sheet of paper. I wish that we could hire CSI. Often an isolated print has its own contribution — an inscription — revealing a connection through its provenance.”
The digital catalogue debuted with around 1,000 images and will be updated weekly until it reaches 25,000. Every photograph is annotated with references to Talbot’s notebooks, letters, and other resources. Prints and negatives are linked, connecting, for instance, a negative at the Smithsonian Institution to one of the salt prints made from it at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Pivotal objects are also featured, including the glassware seen in Talbot’s “Articles of Glass” photograph, which was published in the 1844–46 book The Pencil of Nature. The Bodleian stated in a release that although catalogues raisonnés are “common in art history, nothing of this scale has been attempted for photography — it is a record of both the invention of an art and of the art of invention.”
The creation of the catalogue took two years for Bodleian Libraries, following the acquisition of Talbot’s personal archive in 2014, though Schaaf has researched the work of the British “father of photography” for decades. For the catalogue, he worked closely with the Talbot family, ensuring that more familiar images, such as those in The Pencil of Nature, are seen alongside lesser-known experiments with light, exposure, and the limits of the then-new medium.
“Most people have seen the same images over and over — ‘The Open Door,’ ‘Lace,’ some botanicals — but the sheer quantity and his intense effort is stunning,” Schaaf said. “After four decades or so, I keep thinking that I’ve seen it all, but then something comes out of nowhere and surprises me.”
Over 100 collections, public and private, are featured in the online catalogue, from large institutions like the British Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to smaller archives in Estonia, South Africa, and Russia. Talbot’s family members — among the first humans photographed in history — pose at his Lacock Abbey home in Wiltshire in some images, while anonymous people and horse-drawn carriages are blurred phantoms in his long exposures of London in the 1830s and 1840s.
“I think when people are able to see the whole corpus, they will make a lot of surprising connections,” Schaaf said. “There will be answers to questions that I never thought to ask.”
The William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonné is available to explore online through Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.