Tag Archives: photography

Shadow drawings

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One of the reasons why Alfred Swaine Taylor is an interesting person to write about is that, when he wasn’t rummaging through jars of human innards looking for poison, he had an artistic side and experimented with photography. When Fox Talbot revealed his sciagraphs (‘drawings of shadows’) – which were generally referred to as ‘photogenic drawings’ – at the end of January 1839, Taylor was fascinated and began his own experiments at once. When he couldn’t get Fox Talbot’s recommended silver compound to yield results, he came up with his own characteristic way round it – he used ammonio-nitrate of silver, ‘a compound which has been used for many years as a test for arsenic.'1)Alfred Swaine Taylor, On the Art of Photogenic Drawing, London: Jeffrey, 1840, p.6. He didn’t patent his process – he seems to have had a low opinion of those who did – and not long afterwards, he enthusiastically embraced what we now recognise as photography, using a camera (or ‘camera obscura’ as they were then known).

Examples of Taylor’s photography survive in two albums which are in private hands,2)See articles in the History of Photography journal, by Stephen White (vol 11, July-September 1987, pp.229-35) and Laurence Alt (vol 16, winter 1992, pp.397-8). and I have been unable to contact the owners, so I won’t be able to use them in my book. Fox Talbot’s are held at the Science Musuem, but I wondered, given how clear Taylor’s instructions were, whether I could make my own photogenic drawings. The problem was, where would I lay my hands on the ingredients to make my own solution of ammonio-nitrate of silver? And hopefully, without ending up on some sort of alert list?

As luck would have it, an opportunity arose to make a cyanotype. I didn’t realise you could buy kits to make these, but I was able to make one at a workshop. Somewhat ironically, given that Taylor’s photogenic drawings used a compound which was used for identifying the presence of a poison, the cyanotype process actually uses a poison – cyanide. I was very excited to come up close and personal to Lady Cyd. It uses two compounds – ammonium iron(III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide, and was discovered by Sir John Herschel in 1842. So if it seems similar to the photogenic drawing, then it is – same process, different chemical. I think this is as close as I’ll get to the technique Taylor used.

I was in Liverpool this weekend, visiting my old university chum Jen, and the annual River Festival was on. A celebration of culture and watery activities was going on across Liverpool’s iconic waterfront, and the Open Eye Gallery was hosting a “sun photograph” workshop. It was run by Rachel Brewster of Little Vintage Photography, who just so happens to be related to Sir David Brewster. He was a Scottish scientist who took a great interest in Fox Talbot’s work, corresponding with him over the development of calotypes (making photographs on paper, an alternative method to the Daguerrotype); he also invented the kaleidoscope.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Alfred Swaine Taylor, On the Art of Photogenic Drawing, London: Jeffrey, 1840, p.6.
2. See articles in the History of Photography journal, by Stephen White (vol 11, July-September 1987, pp.229-35) and Laurence Alt (vol 16, winter 1992, pp.397-8).