Last night I finished reading a rather non-academic history of the ‘race’ to develop (see what I did there?) a fixed image, photographic process. Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre battle it out in 19th century science to discover how an image taken by a camera could be fixed permanently.
Capturing the Light by Roger Watson and Helen Rappaport is interesting enough – it’s an interesting subject, the book is not especially academic, and is structured very much as you would expect – which is where I find it weakest.
Tracing the lives of Daguerre and Fox Talbot it aims to create some kind of race as to whom will make the discovery. It is these forms of history that always leave me uncomfortable. Firstly, we get the competitive history, so discoveries being led by the chase – however in this case it is quite difficult to have a ‘race’ when neither party knows the other exists. The book is structured with alternating chapters dedicated to each man, so we get the building tension of an edited contest.
Secondly we get the divisional history, popular unpopular, rich man poor man etc – so we see the quiet, posher Englishman versus loud, brash, poorer French man. Also we get the ‘invention’ history, whereby a name goes down as the inventor and what went before, or after is ignored. The book does try and avoid this, highlighting Wedgwood and Niépce, but it is lost somewhat when the race to the finishing line is the overarching structure of the book.
Its a pretty easy to read account – not overly academic, and pretty easy on the chemistry. We learn the various paths taken by the ‘inventors’ towards their discovery and subsequently to monetise the discoveries – the French government purchase the Daguerre process and the problems with patenting faced by Talbot.
The book does seem to favour Fox-Talbot, probably based on the fact Roger Watson is curator at the Fox-Talbot museum, and Daguerre does sound like a bit of a chancer who could equally have been running the waltzer at the funfair as working on a scientific project. But its an accessible read, I have no reason to doubt its factual content, and if we are aware and accept the structural framework employed within the book then it was a enjoyable read.