The Birth of Photography from the Spirit of the Herbarium
by ANNA ARTAKER
The Birth of Photography from the Spirit of the Herbarium
by Anna Artaker
My contribution turns towards the botanical origins of photography and identifies nature printing with the missing link between the herbarium and photography.
What is nature printing? A nature print is in principle any print for which the object shown was used as a printing block. In Europe nature printing developed parallel to the botanical tradition of creating herbariums that served for teaching purposes especially during winter when living plants were not available. Since the durability of a herbarium is limited botanists started to ink the dried and pressed plants and to print them on paper. Usually both sides of the plant were inked. The plant was then placed between two sheets of paper and rubbed with a bone folder or just the heel of the hand to achieve a true-to-the-original imprint. This process could be repeated two more times without additional ink: this way six prints were usually obtained as the plant was too used after this to be printed again. Generally the first print was very dark, similar to a paper cut, and the second print was the most exact. Often the first and the third print were coloured in when dry, while the clearest second one was left uncoloured. In the 16th century a number of European botanists knew and applied the technique of nature printing that at the time was known as ectypa or typographia plantarum.1
If we consider William Henry Fox Talbot's early photographic experiments in the late 1830s and early 1840s we can detect a kinship to nature printing. In his attempt to capture the incidence of light on paper Talbot used plants that he pressed with glass plates onto sensitised paper and exposed them to sunlight to fix them as negative silhouettes. Here we can already spot two parallels that connect Talbot's early photograms to nature printing: the first one is production-related and concerns the fact that in both cases it is the direct physical contact with the depicted object that generates the image. The second parallel regards the choice of botanical motifs. Talbot, who was also an enthusiastic amateur botanist, is likely to have been familiar with the technique of nature printing and his photograms might be considered nature prints with photochemical means, even though when experimenting with rendering paper light sensitive he also had the camera obscura in mind, wanting to record the true-to-life image projected by light entering a dark room through a small aperture.
But there is another correlation between nature printing and photography that my contribution explores, which is historical: exactly at the time when Talbot published The Pencil of Nature from 1844 to 1846 - the first publication ever illustrated with photographs and meant to advertise his photographic process - the technique of nature printing was perfected. Compared to replicating the herbarium specimens into six prints of different quality the new method enabled an unlimited number of prints. In the 1840s Alois Auer the director of the k. k. Hof- und Staatsdruckerei - the Austrian National Printing Office in Vienna - advanced the development of nature printing to the extent of attaining patent registration in 1852: starting out from an imprint in lead of the plant to be printed, a copper intaglio plate was made using the electrochemical process of galvanoplasty2 invented by Moritz Hermann von Jacobi in 1837.
My series of nature prints "after Talbot" focuses on this historical connection between early camera-less photography and nature printing. To emphasize this connection the series revives the technique as perfected in Vienna and is titled like Talbot's publication: THE PENCIL OF NATURE. However my nature prints are not so much inspired by the photographs Talbot published in his book: apart from two exceptions those were made using a pinhole camera that liberates the imaging process from immediate contact. The pinhole camera is a camera obscura, where the image is transported solely by focusing light beams onto a surface, which Talbot replaced by a photosensitive substrate capable of recording the light. Rather THE PENCIL OF NATURE refers to the numerous botanical photograms Talbot made when experimenting with his photographic process. These photograms have only been published haphazardly from his estate and for conservational reasons are hardly ever exhibited.
However, my series takes the analogy of photograms and nature prints even further: the nature prints show examples of the species that can also be identified in Talbot's photograms3. The plants I harvested over the past two years differ in appearance from Talbot's samples used almost two hundred years ago only in that two samples of the same species vary. In contrast to the title and selection of plants, which indicate a specific moment in the history of photography, the plants stand for the cyclical time of nature that appears like an ahistorical time to us because it seems to ever repeat itself. Thus the motifs add to the "complexity of time" that I aim to establish. The main element contributing to this complexity is found in the technique itself: nature printing is based on an imprint. Georges Didi-Huberman has shown that the imprint matches Walter Benjamin's notion of the dialectical image defined as that "wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation."4. As enigmatic as this formulation might seem, it makes sense if you apply it to the imprint, as Didi-Huberman has done:5 a footprint in the sand shows contact with the foot just as much as the absence of this contact, the imprint only appears once the foot is no longer there. Thus the imprint forms a constellation of the past - the past moment of contact that left the imprint - with the present - the moment we look at the imprint. In Didi-Huberman's words the imprint establishes "a complexity of time"6 that hints at the above quoted definition of the dialectical image.
If we follow this association of imprint and dialectical image then nature printing is a technique that creates a constellation of what-has-been to the now and is thus capable of sparking a dialectical image. If we remember that the dialectical image is the central category of Benjamin's philosophy of history, the THE PENCIL OF NATURE series can be described not only as an exploration of the history of photography, but as an exploration of the way we grasp history. In a more general sense I am interested in the way time itself is captured in the things we produce. This interest in how time registers in the things that surround us brings us back to the herbarium and forward to photography.
Photography, nature printing and the herbarium have in common that, each in their own way, they make a caesura into time, which is here the cyclical time of nature. All three freeze a certain moment in the life cycle of a plant - germination, growth, flowering etc. By harvesting, drying and pressing the plant to better conserve it both the herbarium and the nature print stop the natural cycle of the plant. Often several specimens of one plant are collected over the course of one year to then present different phases of its development next to each other. In the age of DNA sequencing the herbarium, which has once again become the most valuable way to inventory a plant for science, because with the original plant or parts of it also the DNA is preserved. The nature print - despite Alois Auer's characterization as "identical to the original" plant -is already detached: although based on direct physical contact and committed to the self-imaging ideal, it is no longer the plant itself we are dealing with. And finally photography to which I have argued that nature printing served as a model. Focusing on the earliest, camera-less photograms we witness the historic moment when images not only of, but also through nature still depended on actual physical contact. Simultaneously Talbot's use of a pinhole camera emancipated the imaging process from direct physical contact. When he describes his photographs as "impressed by Nature's hand" the moment of contact is no longer literal but only metaphorical.
01) THE PENCIL OF NATURE, series of nature prints, each one 60 x 43,5 cm, exhibition view, tresor Kunstforum Wien, Vienna 2017
02) Fern family (Pteridaceae), most likely Athyrium (lady fern), initial imprint in lead, pre-printing stage for nature print, 31 x 44,5 cm
03) Fern family (Pteridaceae), most likely Athyrium (lady fern), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm
04) Fern family (Pteridaceae), most likely Athyrium (lady fern), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm, detail
05) Nettle family (Urticaceae), Urtica diocia (big nettle), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm
06) Nettle family (Urticaceae), Urtica diocia (big nettle), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm, detail
07) Fern family (Pteridaceae), Adiantum Trapeziforme (diamond maidenhair fern), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm
08) Fern family (Pteridaceae), Adiantum Trapeziforme (diamond maidenhair fern), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm, detail
09) Primrose family (Primulaceae), Primula elatior (oxlip), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm
10) Primrose family (Primulaceae), Primula elatior (oxlip), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm, detail
11) Family of aralia (Araliaceae), Hedera Helix (ivy), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm
12) Family of aralia (Araliaceae), Hedera Helix (ivy), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm, detail
13) Daisy family (Asteraceae), Petasites sp. (butterbur), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm
14) Daisy family (Asteraceae), Petasites sp. (butterbur), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm, detail
15) Borage family (Boraginaceae), Symphytum Tuberosum (tuberous comfrey), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm
16) borage family (Boraginaceae), Symphytum Tuberosum (tuberous comfrey), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm, detail
17) Geranium family (Geraniaceae), Geranium Robertianum (herb Robert), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm
18) geranium family (Geraniaceae), Geranium Robertianum (herb Robert), nature print on vat paper, 60 x 43,5 cm, detail
- The process is described by Peter Norbert Heilmann "Die Technik des Naturselbstdruckes", in: Reinhold Niederl (ed.), Faszination versunkener Pflanzenwelten: Constantin von Ettingshausen - ein Forscherportrait, Graz: Landesmuseum Joanneum, Geologie u. Paläontologie, Heft 55, 1997. For a detailed history of nature printing in Europe and beyond see: Roderick Cave, Impressions of nature: a history of nature printing, London/New York 2010. ↩
- The lead plate with the original plant impression is suspended in a so-called galvanic bath - a solution of sulphuric acid with various additions - together with a copper plate. Subsequently negative electrical voltage is applied to the lead and positive voltage to the copper anode. The acid bath then dissolves copper ions from the copper plate, which travel along the electric current in the acid to the negative pole and settle on the surface of the lead imprint. This way one obtains a positive of the original impression. This positive serves as a matrix from which a negative can be produced again using the same electroplating process. This negative is an exact replica of the initial imprint in lead, but since it is copper it can serve as an intaglio printing plate and allows a print run of approx. up to a hundred prints. If the quality of the printing plate starts to decrease, the pristine positive is still there to be used for the production of a new printing plate. Since the electroplating process leaves the matrix unimpaired the technique in principle enables an unlimited print run - even if this involves a comparatively complex, costly and time-consuming procedure. ↩
- My thanks go to Professor Michael Kiehn, Director of the Botanical Garden of the University of Vienna, and his colleagues for their help in identifying some of the species used by Talbot. ↩
- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, transl. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: 1999, p. 462 ↩
- Georges Didi-Huberman, "La ressemblance par contact. Archéologie, anachronism et modernité de l'empreinte", in: idem (ed.) L'empreinte, exh.-cat. Centre national d'art et de culture Georges Pompidou, Paris: 1997 ↩
- ibid., p. 17 ↩