Displaced 'origins': William Henry Fox Talbot's The Pencil of Nature

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This essay analyses William Henry Fox Talbot's book of photographs The Pencil of Nature (1844-1846), in which he discusses the role of the photograph as a document. By emphasizing the historical specificity of the book, this essay argues that it presents an undecided and reserved view with regard to the future of the photograph. The Pencil of Nature is neither embedded in the discourse of the mechanical and mass-produced copy, nor is it embedded in the idea of the 'authentic' copy or index, as has been suggested in recent theories of photography. Instead, it reflects a specific form of Romantic historicism which emerged in the early nineteenth century as part of a shift in the organization of knowledge. Talbot's statements on the evidentiary status of the photograph are thus related to literary genres of writing, and, in particular, to Thomas Babington Macaulay's work, to the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, and to Talbot's own philological and classical studies. In this context, the intelligibility of documents is a function of time, yet time is simultaneously a source of constant change and the intellectual 'horizon' within which things acquire their meaning. This, the writer contends, forms the discursive framework within which Talbot's views on the document are formed: on the one hand, the desire for 'truth', on the other hand, the recognition that time dismantles any claim for the universality of knowledge.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)314-325
Number of pages12
JournalHistory of Photography
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2008


  • Carol Armstrong, Romantic historicism, photography theory
  • Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
  • The Pencil of Nature (1844-1846)
  • Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859)
  • William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877)


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