I recently visited The Weston Library in Oxford to see the ‘Bright Sparks: Photography and the Talbot Archive’ exhibition which runs until the 18th June. I have a deep fascination for 19th Century photography and it wasn’t a surprise to find myself captivated by the items on display. One of the most engaging displays was that which comprised a photograph taken in 1844 of several items of glassware, above which were some of those very pieces, arranged on two glass shelves.
You can see, in the photo above, the decanter at the top of Fox Talbot’s photograph and the jug, both of which are displayed on the top shelf above. I’m not sure how long I stood there, my eyes flitting between the photograph and the glassware – but it was quite a while. To think that those objects in front of me, were the very same objects in the – almost – 180 year old photograph, was mind blowing.
But what was going on in my head while I stood there looking?
If the glass of the display case wasn’t there, I could easily reach out and touch one of the items. I could lift up the decanter for example, or the jug, and yet, there it was, pictured in 1844, 180 years away. It was like seeing the light of a star 180 lightyears from Earth and the star itself simultaneously. At that moment, now and a moment in 1844 were one and the same thing. The space in which I was standing could have been either.
There is an audio recording of my late mum singing in her church in 1982, one of many cantatas she and the church choir (which at times included me) sung at Easter and Christmas. Listening to it now, it’s almost as if I am inside the church looking down at the congregation and the choir. I can see my mum singing; as if now and that moment in 1982 were suddenly one and the same thing.
It’s as though, when looking at Fox Talbot’s photograph and the glassware above, one is replaying something; the visual equivalent of listening to the tape from forty years ago. The photograph ceases to be static, but instead it begins to move. But it’s not the material photograph that is moving, it’s the moment captured in the image. Listening to the recording of my mum, I find myself in 1982; with this display, I find myself some time in 1844.