Vol. 4: Presenting Pictures

Bernard Finn

In this fourth volume of the Artefacts series we direct our attention to images. We are concerned with pictures as objects, and with the technical devices associated with the production and communication of pictures. In both cases we are especially interested in showing how the object itself can convey information of value to historians. I might add that we do not include paintings, for which there is an entirely different literature largely dealing with different sets of questions.

We begin appropriately with William Henry Fox Talbot and the origins of photography. As Russell Roberts points out, Talbot and others were surprisingly prescient regarding the possibilities of this new technology. In particular, they speculated about the impact that photography, in combination with printing, would have on museums (not unlike recent ruminations about the impact of digital images and the Internet). Roberts pursues his analysis with specific references to Talbot photographs.

Talbot's The Pencil of Nature was the first book to be printed with photographs. Starting at this point, Helena Wright describes the revolution in printing technology and in publication that took place over the course of the rest of the nineteenth century as increasingly successful means of reproducing photographs were achieved. She pays special attention to the collotype and then the screened halftone processes.

Cornelia Kemp examines apparatus preserved at the Deutsches Museum, together with some recently discovered photographs, to gain an understanding of the work of Ernst Kohlrausch. A little-known contemporary of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey, Kohlrausch developed his own system of 'chronophotography' whereby a rapid sequence of photographs could reveal details of a body in motion, a motivation stimulated by his interest in gymnastics. The artefactual evidence is all the more important because this approach was not considered significant by others, and the written record is sparse.

Mechanical means of conveying information, including images, continued and continue to be important--witness the numerous specialised mail services in use today. John Liffen describes the ingenious mail-tube systems that proliferated in urban settings in various parts of the world in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Early in the twentieth century several people began to explore means of producing and conveying images electronically. One who has not received much attention is Manfred von Ardenne, who, like Kohlrausch, is rescued from obscurity by the happy circumstance that some of his apparatus has been preserved at the Deutsches Museum. In examining and interpreting this material, Oskar Blumtritt makes a powerful argument for the value of artefacts in studies of the history of technology, with particular reference to the ideas of Bruno Latour.

Some readers may be surprised to learn that the history of the fax machine can be traced back to the 1840s, at a time when Daguerre and Talbot were performing their early photographic experiments. However, as Jonathan Coopersmith shows us, it wasn't until the 1920s that practical methods were devised so that images could be copied and then conveyed--either by wire or through the ether--over long distances. And it was half a century later before new techniques made this device a ubiquitous home and office machine, with all the consequences that flowed from the ease (and cheapness) with which it could be used.

Where are the artefacts--machines and images--that have stimulated these stories and given them substance? How much more is available, and how does a historian find it? In the closing section of this volume Larry Schaaf makes it clear that survival is a chancy thing. In the particular case of William Henry Fox Talbot the gods have been kind; an enormous body of material - images and apparatus--has survived. Some is still in private hands, but the bulk is available in museums, and he assures us that a great deal is still to be learned from its examination.

John Ward describes a twentieth-century collection of industrial photographs by Walter Nurnberg, now part of the collection of the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford. He is careful to point out that these images, like other objects, do not automatically speak for themselves. To interpret them the historian must take into account a variety of contextual considerations. But when this is done the rewards can be rich indeed.

The stimulus for this volume came from a meeting at the Musée des Techniques of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris in November 1999, as it was about to be reopened. This is, of course, one of the great museums of the history of technology, and those of us in attendance were delighted to have the opportunity to see it being reborn. Of particular interest was the section on photography, and here Steven Joseph takes us on a tour, describing some of the richness of the collections and the ways in which they are interpreted.

Digital techniques and the medium of the Internet have begun to make museum collections available in ways that even Talbot could not have imagined. It is my view that the consequences will be even greater than he thought they would be for photography. But instead of making museums and their collections irrelevant, the result will be to make them even more valuable, since they will be accessible. All of us will be in a better position to know what to look for in the real thing and to appreciate it when we see it.

Finally, Helena Wright provides us with a world survey of museums of printing and photography, many of which can be visited via the Internet from the comfort of our offices or homes.