Working in the dark: Fox Talbot and salt paper prints

By rose briskman on 23 May 2014
A rare Fox Talbot print showing Hungerford Bridge

A rare Fox Talbot print showing Hungerford Bridge c.1845

When I heard that a William Henry Fox Talbot photograph from 1845 was to be included in upcoming Bridge exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands, I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Excitement that we even have such a rare and experimental photo in our collection and trepidation that the word facsimile would not be received well when I uttered it.

The photograph, a salted paper print, is stored inside an archival box in a newly refurbished photo store. When I lifted the lid on the dark blue box, to assess its suitability for display, I immediately wanted to put the lid straight back on in case the image faded before my eyes. I felt myself reaching for my ‘conservation police’ hat and saying ‘no you can’t display this object’.

When conservators start wielding lux meters to measure the lighting in exhibitions, we invariably feel like the party-poopers spoiling everyone’s fun. For the first time in my role as paper conservator at the Museum of London, I felt that I wanted to call the party off completely, rather than just advise that the noise should be kept down.

The photo is a truly beautiful image made more special by its fragility and by the miracle of its survival. It emerges as part of the paper sheet revealing the texture of the paper rather than the glossy layer (or screen!) that we are so used to now. Fox Talbot (image below) experimented with capturing images on paper and then spent years working out how to keep them there. With advice from Dr Mike Ware, an expert on Talbot we understood that the very faded state of our photo is likely to be due to the chemicals used to fix it or to the action of pollution in the atmosphere at some point over its life.

So, light may not be the main cause of the fading that the photo has already undergone, but it is likely to cause yet more changes to the photo. Reaching for my calculator and lux meter I began to work out how much light we can safely allow on the work without risking further damage. More than a few seconds it seems, hurray!

Still the conundrum isn’t solved; how to display a work at very low light levels amongst other works at normal exhibition conditions? Human eyes are not very good at reacting to contrasts of dark and light, and this delicate image would be difficult to see if next to a bright light source. After discussions with the curator Francis Marshall and designer Aaron Jones, we agreed that the Talbot could be placed in a darkened room where a series of 19th century magic lantern slides will be, back lit to show their glimmering images of London bridges.

The Talbot salted paper print will be protected by a hood (like an old fashioned phone hood), illuminated by only a small amount of light, controlled even more by putting the light on a timer switch. The small amount of light falling on the image will then seem a lot brighter than it is, enabling it to be seen clearly at about a fortieth of the light level of a traditionally lit display.

I wonder if there is another work coming through the conservation studio that warrants us working on it with the lights off? Anyway, now I’m done, I am off into the sunshine with my hat and sunblock in hand.

This Fox Talbot print will be on display for one month only as part of free Museum of London Docklands exhibition Bridge, which opens on 27 June 2014.

3 thoughts on “Working in the dark: Fox Talbot and salt paper prints

  1. ron says:

    I cannot see the point of risking damage to these photographs. Why not make high resolution copies and display those in normal lighting conditions? I realise that it is not the same as the originals but from a viewing point would be, and probably better due to no lighting restrictions.

    1. rose briskman says:

      Thank you for your comments. The option that you suggest, to display a facsimile, was considered, but the decision was made to show the original photo to the public using timed lighting. The Talbot photograph will be closely monitored by conservators, comparing it against a high resolution copy at regular intervals during the month long display, to further reduce any risk to the photograph.

  2. Jan Lewis says:

    I visited the superb Bridges Exhibition a couple of weeks ago, not realising at the time how very fortunate I was to see the original Fox Talbot photograph. I am even more delighted now I have read all the trouble that was taken to ensure it could be displayed. Thank you.

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