Daguerreian Society

On this day (April 13) in the year 1839, the following article appeared in 
"The Corsair. A Gazette of Literature, Art, Dramatic Criticism, fashion and 
Novelty" (New-York; Vol. I., No. 5; Saturday, April 13, 1839, pp. 70-2):
- - - - - - - - -


  We know not how it is, but just as we are going to have something good in 
this world, up starts a mischief to mar it or to vilify it.  There is not a 
real panacea, but has its rival.  Engraving, set upon a firm basis, one 
would have thought might have been supreme.  No such a thing--her 
illegitimate sister, Lithography, sets up her claim, and by means of cheap 
publications, calls in the masses, who naturally prefer the inferior 
article; and here commences the democracy of art.  Print shops have 
increased out of number--print auctions are every where; so that, if all 
the world do not become judges of art, it cannot be for lack of means to 
make them acquainted with it.
  There is no breathing space--all is one great movement.  Where are we 
going?  Who can tell?  The phantasmagoria of inventions passes rapidly 
before us--are we to see them no more?--are they to be obliterated?  Is the 
hand of man to be altogether stayed in his work?--the wit active-the 
fingers idle?  Wonderful wonder of wonder!!  Vanish aqua-tints and 
 mezzotints--as chimneys that consume their own smoke, devour your-selves. 
 Steel engravers, copper engravers, and etchers, drink up your aquafortis, 
and die!  There is an end of your black art--"Othello's occupation's gone." 
 The real black art of true magic arises and cries avaunt.  All nature 
shall paint herself--fields, rivers, trees, houses, plains, mountains, 
cities, shall all paint themselves at a bidding, and at a few moment's 
notice.  Towns will no longer have any representatives but selves. 
 Invention says it.  It has found out the one thing new under the sun; 
that, by virtue of the sun's patent, all nature, animate and inanimate,   
shall be henceforth its own painter, engraver, printer, and publisher.. 
Here is a revolution in art; and, that we may not be behindhand in 
revolutions, for which we have so imitative a taste, no sooner does one 
start up in Paris, but we must have one in London too.  And so Mr. 
Daguerre's invention is instantly rivalled by Mr. Fox Talbot's.  The 
Dagueroscope and the Photogenic revolutions are to keep you all down, ye 
painters, engravers, and, alas! the harmless race, the sketchers.  All ye, 
before whose unsteady hands towers have toppled down upon the paper, and 
the pagodas of the East have bowed, hide your heads in holes and corners, 
and wait there till you are called for.  The "mountain in labor" will no 
more produce a mouse; it will produce itself, with all that is upon it.  Ye 
artists of all denominations that have so vilified nature as her 
journeymen, see how she rises up against you, and takes the staff into her 
own hands.  Your mistress now, with a vengeance, she will show you what she 
really is, and that the cloud is not "very like a whale."  You must 
positively abscond.  Now, as to you, locality painters, with your towns and 
castles on the Rhine, you will not get the "ready rhino" for them now--and 
we have no pity for you.  Bridges are far too arch now to put up with your 
false perspective.  They will no longer be abridged of their true 
proportions by you; they will measure themselves and take their own toll. 
 You will no longer be tolerated.  You drawers of churches, Britton, Pugin, 
Mackenzie, beware lest you yourselves be drawn in.  Every church will show 
itself to the world without your help.  It will make its wants visible and 
known on paper; and, though vestry and church warden quash the church 
rates, every steeple will lift up its head and demand proper repair.
  Ye animal painters, go no more to the Zoologicals to stare the lions out 
of countenance--they do not want your countenance any more.  The day is 
come for every beast to be his own portrait painter.  "None but himself 
shall be his parallel."  Every garden will publish its own Botanical 
Magazine.  The true "Forget me not" will banish all others from the earth. 
 Talk no more of "holding the mirror up to nature"--she will hold it up to 
herself, and present you with a copy of her countenance for a penny.  What 
would you say to looking in a mirror and having the image fastened!!  As 
one looks sometimes, it is really quite frightful to think of it; but such 
a thing is possible--nay, it is probable--no, it is certain.  What will 
become of the poor thieves, when they shall see handed in as evidence 
against them their own portraits, taken by the room in which they stole, 
and in the very act of stealing!  What wonderful discoveries is this 
wonderful discovery destined to discover!  The telescope is rather an 
unfair tell-tale; but now every thing and every body may have to encounter 
his double every where, most inconveniently, and thus every one become his 
own caricaturist.  Any one may walk about with his patent sketch-book--set 
it to work--and see in a few moments what is doing behind his back!  Poor 
Murphy outdone!--the weather must be its own almanack--the waters keep 
their own tide-tables.  What confusion will there be in autograph signs 
manual!  How difficult to prove the representation a forgery, if nobody has 
a hand in it!!
  Mr. Babbage in his (miscalled ninth Bridgewater) Treatise announces the 
astounding fact, as a very sublime truth, that every word uttered from the 
creation of the world has registered itself, and is still speaking, and 
will speak for ever in vibration.  In fact, there is a great album of 
Babel.  But what too, if the great business of the sun be to act registar 
likewise, and to give out impressions of our looks, and pictures of our 
actions; and so, if with Bishop Berkeley's theory, there be no such thing 
as any thing, quoad matter, for aught we know to the contrary, other worlds 
of the system may be peopled and conducted with the images of persons and 
transactions thrown off from this and from each other; the whole universal 
nature being nothing more than phonetic and photogenic structures.  As all 
readers may not have read the accounts of this singular invention, upon 
which we have made these comments, we subjoin an extract from the letter of 
Mr Talbot to the editor of the Literary Gazette.

        To the Editor of the Literary Gazette.
  "DEAR SIR--I have great pleasure in complying with the wish you have 
expressed to me, that I would go into some details respecting the invention 
which I have communicated to the Royal Society, viz., the art of photogenic 
drawing, or of forming pictures and images of natural objects by means of 
solar light.
  "Many instruments have been devised, at various times, for abridging the 
labor of the artist in copying natural objects, and for insuring greater 
accuracy in the design than can be readily attained without such 
assistance.  Among these may be more particularly mentioned the camera 
obscura and the camera lucida, which are familiar to most persons; 
certainly very ingenious and beautiful instruments, and in many 
circumstances eminently useful, especially the latter.  Yet are there many 
persons who do no succeed in using them, and, I believe, few are able to do 
so with great success, except those who, in other respects, are skilled in 
drawing.  Up to a certain point, these inventions are excellent; beyond 
that point they do not go.  They assist the artist in his work they do not 
work for him.  They do not dispense with his time, nor with his skill, nor 
with his attention.  All they do is to guide his eye and correct his 
judgment; but the actual performance of the drawing must be his own.  From 
all these prior ones, the present invention differs totally in this respect 
(which nay be explained in a single sentence,) viz. that by means of this 
contrivance, it is not the artist who makes the picture, but the picture 
which makes itself.  All that the artist does is to dispose the apparatus 
before the object whose image he requires; he then leaves it for a certain 
time, greater or less, according to circumstances.  At the end of the time 
he returns, takes out his picture, and finds it finished.  The agent in 
this operation is solar light, which being thrown by a lens upon a sheet of 
prepared paper, stamps upon it the image of the object, whatever that may 
be, which is placed before it.  The very foundation of the art, therefore, 
consists in this eminently curious natural fact, viz., that there exists a 
substance so sensitive of light, as to be capable of receiving even its 
faint impressions.  The whole possibility of the process depends upon this; 
for if no such substance existed in rerum natura, the notion of thus 
copying objects would be nothing more than a scientific dream.  Moreover, 
it is not sufficient that the paper should be so sensitive as to receive 
the impressions of external objects; it is requisite also, that, having 
received it should retain them; and, moreover, that it should be insensible 
with regard to other objects to which it may be subsequently exposed.  The 
necessity of this is obvious, for otherwise, new impressions would be 
received, which would confuse and efface the former ones.  But it is easier 
to perceive the necessity of the thing required than to attain to its 
  "In 1834 I undertook a course of experiments with this object in view.  I 
know not what good star seconded my efforts.  After various trials, I 
succeeded in hitting upon a method of obtaining this desideratum.  By this 
process it is possible to destroy the sensibility of the paper, and to 
render it quite insensible.  After this change it may be exposed with 
safety to the light of day; it may even be placed in the sunshine; indeed I 
have specimens which have been left an hour in the sun without having 
received any apparent deterioration.
  The specimens of this art, which I exhibited at the Royal Institution, 
though consisting only of what I happened to have with me in town, are yet 
sufficient to give a general idea of it, and to show the wide range of its 
applicability.  Among them were pictures of flowers and leaves; a pattern 
of lace; figures taken from painted glass; a view of Venice, copied from an 
engraving; some images formed by the solar microscope, viz. a slice of wood 
very highly magnified, exhibiting the pores of two kinds, one set much 
smaller than the other, and more numerous.  Another microscope sketch, 
exhibiting the reticulations on the wing of an insect.  Finally, various 
pictures, representing the architecture of my house in the country; all 
these made with the camera obscura, in the summer of 1835.  And this I 
believe to be the first instance on record of a house having painted its 
own portrait.  A person unacquainted with the process, if told that nothing 
of all this was executed by the hand, must imagine that one has at one's 
call the genius of Aladdin's lamp.  And, indeed, it may almost be said that 
this is something of the same kind.  It is a little bit of magic 
realized--of natural magic.  You make the powers of nature work for you, 
and no wonder that your work is well and quickly done.  No matter whether 
the subject be large or small, simple or complicated; whether the flower 
branch which you wish to copy contains one blossom or one thousand; you set 
the instrument in action, the allotted time elapses, and you find the 
picture finished, in every part and in every minute particular.  There is 
something in this rapidity and perfection of execution which is very 
wonderful.  But, after all, what is Nature but one great field of wonders 
past our comprehension?  Those, indeed, which are of every-day occurrence 
do not habitually strike us, on account of their familiarity; but they are 
not the less, on that account, essential portions of the same wonderful 
whole.  I hope it will be borne in mind by those who take an interest in 
this subject, that, in what I have hitherto done, I do not profess to have 
perfected an art, but to have commenced one, the limits of which it is not 
possible at present exactly to ascertain.  I only claim to have based this 
new art upon a secure foundation: it will be for more skilful hands than 
mine to rear the superstructure.
                I remain, dear sir, yours," &c.,
                                            "H. FOX TALBOT."

  Here, in truth, is a discovery launched upon the world, that must make a 
revolution in art.  It is impossible, at first view, not to be amused at 
the sundry whimsical views the coming changes present.  But, to speak more 
seriously, in what way, in what degree, will art be affected by it?  Art is 
of two kinds, or more properly speaking, has two walks, the imaginative and 
the imitative; the latter may, indeed, greatly assist the former, but, in 
the strictly imitative, imagination may not enter but to do mischief.  They 
may be considered therefore, as the two only proper walks.  It must be 
evident that the higher, the imaginative, cannot immediately be affected by 
the new discovery--it is not tangible to its power--the poetry of the mind 
cannot be submitted to this material process; but there is a point of view 
in which it may be highly detrimental to genius, which, being but a power 
over materials, must collect with pains and labor, and acquire a facility 
of drawing.  Now, it is manifest that, if the artist can lay up a store of 
objects without the (at first very tedious) process of correct drawing, 
both his mind and his hand will fail him; the mind will not readily supply 
what it does not know practically arid familiarly, and the hand must be 
crippled when brought to execute what it has not previously supplied as a 
sketch.  Who will make elaborate drawings from statues or from life, if he 
can be supplied in a more perfect, a more true manner, and in the space of 
a few minutes, either with the most simple or the most complicated forms? 
 How very few will apply themselves to a drudgery, the benefits of which 
are to be so remote, as an ultimate improvement, and will forego for that 
hope, which genius may be most inclined to doubt, immediate possession? 
 But if genius could really be schooled to severe discipline, the new 
discovery, by new and most accurate forms, might greatly aid conception. 
 If this view be correct, we may have fewer artists; but those few, who 
will "spurn delights and live laborious days," will arrive at an eminence 
which no modern, and possibly no ancient master has reached.
  But, in the merely imitative walk, and that chiefly for scientific 
purposes, draughts of machinery and objects of natural history, the 
practice of art, as it now exists, will be nearly annihilated--it will be 
chiefly confined to the coloring representations made by the new 
instruments--for it is not presumed that color will be produced by the new 
process.  Our mere painters of views will be superseded, for our artists 
have strangely dropped the wings of their genius, and perched themselves, 
as if without permission to enter, before the walls of every town and city 
in Christendom, and of some out of it; so much so, that after-generations, 
judging of us from our views in annuals and other productions, may 
pronounce us to have been a proscribed race, not allowed to enter within 
gates; pictorial lepers, committed to perform quarantine without, and in 
the face of the broad sun, if possible, to purify us.  These mere 
view-makers will be superseded; for who, that really values views, will not 
prefer the real representation to the less to be depended upon?  We have so 
little taste for these things, that we shall say so much the better, if it 
does not throw many worthy and industrious men out of employment.  Yet who 
is allowed to think of that in these days, when the great, the universal 
game of "beggar my neighbor" is played and encouraged with such avidity? 
 Then it remains to be considered,--will taste be enlarged by this 
invention? Do we not despise what is too easily attained?  Is not the 
admiration of the world at once the incitement and the reward?  Has it not 
greatly, mainly, a reference to ourselves?  It is what man can do by his 
extraordinary manual dexterity that we are so prone to admire.
  People prefer a poor representation of an object made by a human hand to 
the beauty of the thing itself.  They will throw away a leaf, a flower, of 
exquisite beauty, and treasure up the veriest daub, that shall have the 
slightest resemblance to it.  We suspect our love--our admiration of art 
arises, in the first place, because it is art, and of man's hand.  This is 
a natural prejudice, and one designed, probably, to bring the hands nature 
has given us to their utmost power.  There are things so exquisitely 
beautiful, and at first sight acknowledged to be so by all, that it is 
surprising they are not in common use.  For instance, the camera 
obscura--how perfectly fascinating it is!  Yet, how unsatisfied are people 
with it, because it is not of a human hand, and how seldom do people, even 
of taste, return, as it might have been expected they would, to the 
exhibition of it!  We are afraid something of this indifference will arise 
from the new invention.  However beautiful may be the work produced, there 
will be no friend to be magnified, no great artist for the amateurs to 
worship with all the idolatry of their tastes, or of their lack of it.  The 
love of imitation, innate though it be, and so determinate in infant genius 
as it has ever shown itself, will undoubtedly be checked as mere idleness; 
and, in lieu of improvement by practice, the young genius will be surfeited 
with amusements which he has had no share in creating, and for whose 
excellence he has had no praise.  If this view be correct, it may be 
presumed that the number of artists will be greatly lessened, and that a 
few will attain greater excellence.

(Thanks to Gene Freeman for the electronic text, who also adds these notes:
  "The Corsair," according to Frank Luther Mott's account in his History of 
American Magazines, would have been "The Pirate" if its editor, Nathaniel 
Willis had won his way. The Corsair lasted a year, March 1839 until March 
1840, not too bad for the times. Willis was a clever and prolific writer 
and the article on photography is typical of his pen. H. Fox Talbot's 
famous book, The Pencil of Nature was first published in parts, beginning 
in 1844, five years after Willis used the same title for this article.)
Posted for your enjoyment.     Gary W. Ewer     

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