Photography – Part 4 – Project 1: P. 146 Research Point

This first research point in the photography section asks us the read the introductory sections of The Pencil of Nature by William Henry Fox Talbot (available at and also as a PDF file here – both accessed 22/02/20) and answer the following:

Do you see photography as mechanical or creative? Can any process be both?

Having been interested in photography for many years, I have always believed that it is both mechanical and creative. In other words, both science and art.

In Talbot’s introduction to The Pencil of Nature, he mostly discusses the mechanics and chemical processes involved in producing photos in the early 19th century. He does, however, refer frequently to photography as art. In the first paragraph he explains it as ‘…the new art of Photogenic Drawing…’, but later on in page 1 he says ‘It is needless, therefore, to say that they differ in all respects, and as widely us possible, in their origin, from plates of the ordinary kind, which owe their existence to the united skill of the Artist and the Engraver’, suggesting that there is little skill involved in producing a photographic plate using his method. He speaks of it as an art in many other places within the book, but doesn’t actually mention a lot about any kind of artistic processes.

At this starting point in photography’s history, the activity seemed to be very much a mechanical one – the act of actually getting a clear image onto the treated paper and then fixing it being the main objective. Much of the very early photography was more like a series of scientific experiments than anything else.

As noted in the course materials, Talbot himself acknowledged that there was scope for artistic skill within the discipline and says this in a 1941 letter to The Literary Gazette:

‘I remember it was said by many persons, at the time when photogenic drawing was first spoken of, that it was likely to prove injurious to art, as substituting mere mechanical labour in lieu of talent and experience. Now, so far from this being the case, I find that in this, as in most other things, there is ample room for the exercise of skill and judgment. It would hardly be believed he different [sic] an effect is produced by a longer or shorter exposure to the light, and, also, by mere variations in the fixing process, by means of which almost any tint, cold or warm, may be thrown over the picture, and the effect of bright or gloomy weather may be imitated at pleasure. All this falls within the artist’s province to combine and to regulate; and if, in the course of these manipulations, he, nolens volens [whether willing or not], becomes a chemist and an optician, I feel confident that such an alliance of science with art will prove conducive to the improvement of both.’

As the technology improved and became more available, it started to be used for taking portraits and producing accurate representations of landscapes, architecture and nature.

In 1853, The Photographic Society of London was formed and Sir William Newton ( a miniaturist painter) addressed the audience to explain that the principles of fine art should be used to produce photographs. It would become the goal of many more practitioners and theorists to have photography accepted as a legitimate and independent art form.

Nowadays, with the ability of just about anybody to take a digital photo on a smartphone or compact camera, or even using the auto mode on a DSLR, the mechanical processes are very much out of the novice photographers hands – all going on instantaneously behind the scenes when they click the button. Photography as art is unlikely to be in the forefront of these everyday photographers’ minds either.

For those who are that way inclined, photography can very much be seen and practised as an art. The photographer’s choice of subject, viewpoint, lighting and more all combine to create a unique work. On top of this, the mechanical processes of the camera can also be controlled, even on today’s modern digital cameras, to allow even more creative choices to be made.

So, the answer to the question of whether a process can be mechanical and creative, I would definitely say yes. Changing aperture and shutter speed settings on a camera can have a practical use in making sure you are getting the proper exposure levels, but you can also controls these settings to purposely over or under expose an image for the aesthetic effect. You can also alter them in order to blur a background or freeze the action, and get cool light effects by keeping the shutter open for an extended period of time like in the featured image at the top of this post.

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