National Gallery of Art/Princeton University Press, 294 pp., $55.00; $45.00 (paper)
In the early nineteenth century, if a bird came into view and a hunter fired without having time to aim deliberately, the hunter was said to have taken a snapshot. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, Sir John Herschel applied the term to photography in 1860. Herschel, who also coined the word “photographic,” was speculating about future possibilities; at the time, it was difficult to act on a sudden picture-taking impulse. Many cameras were bulky, because they had to be large enough to hold the chemically treated metal or paper that was sensitive to light and either matched in size, or itself became, the image finally displayed.
The chemistry involved was also cumbersome, though there were several processes to choose from. Before taking a daguerreotype, a photographer had to fumigate with iodine a silver-plated sheet of copper. In the British technique of calotypy, paper negatives were coated with silver nitrate, dried, and stored ahead of time, allowing a limited degree of spontaneity for those who prepared in advance. But the paper’s fibers blurred the image. Many therefore preferred the wet-collodion process, in which a glass plate was covered with a sticky, transparent substance, soaked in a silver nitrate solution, loaded in a camera while still damp, and developed immediately after exposure. The results were sharp, but photographers either had to stay near a darkroom or cart a portable one around with them. No chemical preparation was then sensitive enough to record a person unwilling or unable to keep still. “Were you ever daguerreotyped, O immortal man?” Emerson asked his journal in 1841.
And in your zeal not to blur the image, did you keep every finger in its place with such energy that your hands became clenched as for fight or despair,…and the eyes fixed as they are fixed in a fit, in madness, or in death?
Yet there is arguably one photograph that can be called a snapshot in “Impressed by Light,” the recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of calotypes made between 1840 and 1860. It is an 1846 picture of the grounds of a villa in Naples taken by Christopher Rice Mansel “Kit” Talbot. Known in his day as “the wealthiest commoner” in Britain, Kit Talbot came into his money by inheritance and became acquainted with photography through his cousin William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented not only calotypy but also the process of making multiple prints from a single negative. In his Naples photo, Kit left the aperture of his camera open for five minutes, so it isn’t speed that qualifies the image as a snapshot. It’s rather that he doesn’t seem to have cared whether his technique was any good.
The insouciance shows. Whereas the blur in most calotypes seems painterly—a pleasant scumble over rocks, dirt, grass, and bark, all of whose texture is finely displayed—the blur in Kit Talbot’s is just blur. Excess light erases tree trunks and most of a statue’s definition …