Larry Schaaf, photography scholar and director of the William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonne.
Larry Schaaf, photography scholar and director of the William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonne. (Mike Robinson/Century Darkroom)

During four decades of digging into the life and work of British photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot, Baltimore-based scholar Larry Schaaf did not always encounter encouragement.

"I once got rejected for a grant," Schaaf says, "by someone who asked me, 'If this guy is so important, how come you are the only one writing about him?'"

Advertisement

Schaaf's singular determination to give Talbot his due as a pivotal force in the invention of photography eventually resulted in his current position as director of the Talbot Catalogue Raisonne, an online trove recently launched by the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford (foxtalbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk).

From an initial uploading of 1,000 images, the digital archive will eventually contain about 25,000, all tracked down by Schaaf in public and private collections around the globe. (Rights to the images are retained by the owners.)

This catalog raisonne — the term for an annotated listing of every known work by an artist — allows viewers to get up close with Talbot's work, zooming in to see finer details, adjusting contrast and density.

The catalog also provides a rare opportunity to study multiple prints made from the same negative — in 1839, Talbot developed the process of creating a negative.

"Each photograph is unique and started as a sheet of hand-coated writing paper, so each would have the DNA of Talbot on it," Schaff, 69, says. "And every single print is hand-made. Negatives were hand-trimmed; there were no standard sizes. I don't see duplicates. I see a way of comparing differences."

"The Open Door," April 1844, photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot
"The Open Door," April 1844, photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot (National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

Born in 1800, Talbot became quite the polymath and served for a short while in Parliament. Although he lived until 1877, the effort that would seal his fame took place when he was in his 30s and 40s.

"He invented photography out of necessity," says the animated, substantially mustachioed Schaaf in the book-filled office of his Reservoir Hill home. "Newly married, Talbot took his wife to Lake Como in Italy in 1833. He wanted to sketch the scenery, but he couldn't draw. So he started experimenting."

Those experiments, which he took up in earnest when he returned to England, happened more or less at the same time that a Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, was making headway on another photographic process that resulted in the daguerreotype — photographic images preserved on silver plates.

In 1839, Daguerre made headlines with his invention. A few weeks later, Talbot announced his.

"Part of Queens College, Oxford," probably September 4, 1843, photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot.
"Part of Queens College, Oxford," probably September 4, 1843, photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot. (National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

"As lovely as it is, the daguerreotype was ultimately a dead end," Schaff says. "Talbot realized he could make multiple prints. You couldn't do that with a daguerreotype."

Talbot's pivotal contribution to photography has not necessarily made him a household name today.

"He has been unfairly neglected," says Richard Ovenden, the Bodley's Librarian, the top administrator of the Bodleian Libraries (the 25th person with that title since the institution opened in 1602).

"There were lots of others experimenting, but Talbot was absolutely fundamental to the art and science of what we call photography. Every time anyone posts a photo on Facebook or Flickr, they are taking part in a process that began in the early 19th century with our man William Henry Fox Talbot," Ovenden says.

Talbot's subject matter for photographs included landscapes, many taken at his historic family home, Lacock Abbey; portraits and posed shots, among them one using family members and servants to create a tableaux of fruit sellers; views of Oxford, London, Paris and more.

Advertisement

"Some of the images are butt-ugly," Schaaf says.

But many are as compelling today as when they were created. Schaaf particularly admires a view of the Westminster area of London taken in 1841.

The Royal Exchange, London, winter 1844 to spring 1845; photography by William Henry Fox Talbot.
The Royal Exchange, London, winter 1844 to spring 1845; photography by William Henry Fox Talbot. (National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

"It's before Big Ben and before the Houses of Parliament had been rebuilt after the 1834 fire," he says. "So what you are seeing in that photo could have been seen in medieval London."

Talbot's photos often have a painterly quality, capturing images that artists might also have chosen as subjects. A shadowy doorway at Lacock Abbey with a broom propped up in it is an often-cited example.

Same for an interior shot at the Abbey that catches sunlight streaming in, a scene Schaff has witnessed himself in that very space.

"I've sat there with my gin and tonic watching that magical moment when the sun starts to set and you see the light racing across the room," he says. "Talbot was able to capture that in 1840, only a week after he invented a way to do it."

Schaaf also lights up discussing a portrait of Talbot's wife, Constance.

"She might have sat for a painter once or twice in her life," Schaaf says. "But having a photographic portrait done then was so exciting. Try explaining that to people who have probably taken 19 selfies while you're talking."

Talbot's historic work also includes the first book containing photographic illustrations, "The Pencil of Nature," published in installments 1844 to 1846.

"The Fruit Sellers," probably September 9, 1845, at Lacock Abbey; photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot.
"The Fruit Sellers," probably September 9, 1845, at Lacock Abbey; photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot. (Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Fine Photographs)

Schaff has a copy in his own collection, one of many tangible Talbot items that surround him at home while he works on the online catalog and adds to his blog about it. And among the items on his shelves is his book "The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot," published by Princeton University Press in 2000.

"He's really the person who knows more about [Talbot] than anyone else living," Ovenden says. "His scholarship is without peer. All of the other scholars who are working in this field look to Professor Schaaf's work for information and inspiration."

The Illinois-born Schaaf taught the history of photography at the University of Texas at Austin. A conflict in the late 1970s with a dean over a promotion "ruined my attitude," he says, and Schaaf decided to relocate to Baltimore.

In 1982, in search of a photo of Peabody Institute founder George Peabody, he visited the school, where he met Elizabeth, the woman he would marry. (Working as assistant to the dean then, she discovered the conservatory had no proper archives and promptly founded the broad-based Peabody Archives).

Over the decades, Schaaf's fascination with Talbot led him to several countries and continents. Along the way, working with the University of Glasgow, he also founded and edited the Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot Project, an online collection of more than 10,000 Talbot letters (http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk).

The new catalog raisonne marks the fulfillment of an undertaking Schaff began with the help of an IBM personal computer in 1982.

"By the mid '80s, I had 5MB of hard drive, probably as much as singing greeting cards do now," he says. "If I had tried to put 25,000 images online then, I would have — what did Kim Kardashian say? — broken the Web."

The Talbot archive project, with major funding from the William Talbott Hillman Foundation in Pittsburgh, is slated to be completed by the summer of 2018.

"We are determined at Oxford University and Bodleian Libraries," Ovenden says, "to ensure that Professor Schaaf's lifetime of scholarship is preserved."

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement