In April 1844 William Henry Fox Talbot set up a camera loaded with light sensitive paper and photographed (i) a haystack on his country estate at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. The haystack had presumably been constructed in the summer of 1843 but as we have no clue to its original size we cannot tell if it has been used to feed livestock all winter or only recently opened. A ladder leans against the stack, blocks are obviously being cut starting from the top down and we can see that the hay knife has been left high in the stack to the left of the ladder (ii). We can see how the stack has been designed with an undercut to minimise rising damp and painstakingly thatched to protect the valuable crop from the rain. Another thatched roof can be seen behind the stack but this looks more likely to be a barn. I partly chose this image because I lived in rural Italy for a number of years and stacks not dissimilar to this still exist in the mountains of Abruzzo, I found an ancient hay knife in the outbuildings of the house we lived in. This, of course provides a punctum (1) in this photograph that is quite personal to me.
Overall the composition has a strong geometry with the bright ladder and its dark shadow providing contrast to the mid-tones of the hay. The Haystack is a study of light, tone and texture with the shadows of the ladder, the eaves of the thatch and the undercut all playing important roles in defining the significant and detailed forms in the scene. The dark leaves overhead provide a contrasting backdrop to the stack.
Such a stack would have been common place in rural England in the 1840s, unremarkable, probably identical to many other stacks in the Lacock area if not on the estate itself. This leads me to wonder why Fox Talbot photographed this particular stack, what did he want to communicate to his audience and who did he perceive that audience to be? Because this is a well know photograph, one of a series that Fox Talbot published in The Pencil of Nature in 1844 (2) (iii), it has been analysed, considered, critiqued and interpreted for over 175 years.
In fact it was whilst quite casually turning the pages of Ian Jeffrey’s How to Read a Photograph (3) that I paused to read his interpretation of The Haystack and began to think about the variety of ways in which we can read this calotype and how those readings have probably changed over time. It is interesting to consider such an old image in this way because, whilst we feel compelled to label it, there were no strongly established photographic genres in 1844 and no history of this type of image to speak of so Fox-Talbot only saw his work in the context of his drawing, his scientific research (iv) and as a commercial opportunity. He did refer to his calotypes as Art saying in his introduction to The Pencil of Nature that the book is a “first attempt to exhibit an Art of so great a singularity” and refers to the process as “Photogenic Drawing” (v) but I cannot shake off the feeling that the practical process or the commercial potential was more interesting to him than the end result.
Fox Talbot, like many educated men of his time, maintained regular correspondence with contacts all over Europe and from the letters held in the De Montford University archive (5) it is possible to find many references to his photographic work but the ones I found (vii) were predominantly practical, or scientific in nature; and perhaps not surprisingly he was very interested in arguing the advantages of his Calotype process over the Daguerreotype. The discussions he was engaged in rarely touched upon the aesthetics of his or other photographer’s work and one letter from Fox Talbot to William Jerdan, the Editor of the Literary Gazette (vi), is particularly revealing; he wrote “The Complexity of the Art requires a division of labour; one person should invent new processes while another puts in execution those already ascertained, but hitherto I have been the chief operator myself in the different branches of the invention.”
We do know that Pencil of Nature is as much a catalogue as a photo book. Fox talbot selected subjects that showed the potential uses of photography; a photograph of his china collection is accompanied by a text explaining how this would help recover them if they were stolen, the leaf of a plant is contact printed as a botanical specimen, and the haystack is included to show how well photography could record “a multitude of minute details which add to the truth and reality of the representation, but which no artist would take the trouble to copy faithfully from nature.” He also places some photographs into the context of schools of painting, his famous Open Door is referenced to the “Dutch school of art”. All of which supports Gerry Badger’s description of the book as “an advertisement, a calling card, an experiment, a history, an aesthetic achievement and a manifesto” (6).
Ian Jeffrey looking at The Haystack with a post modern eye suggests that the ladder has been placed here to provide human scale, “it serves as an attribute, making practical sense of the haystack”. He goes on to say that the sparse composition leaves the audience focusing on the items that are there so the ladder becomes suggestive of Jacob’s ladder which reached from earth to heaven. All valid points from a highly respected critic; I don’t see the ladder as being “placed” by the photographer, it is logical to me that it has been left here from the last time they cut into the hay which also explains why the hay knife has been left so high on the stack. I didn’t find the ladder suggestive of anything other than a practical way of accessing the hay.
When Fox Talbot photographed The Haystack, his intent appears to have been to show how his new process could capture the infinite detail in a large and recognisable object. He created a pleasing composition and may or may not have had one of his farm labourers bring a ladder and hay knife into the scene to add human scale or human interest. His message was primarily concerned with the functionality of the Calotype; his audience was probably a mixture of the scientific establishment, the British artists he hoped would “assist the enterprise” and the middle-class buyers who, not being able to afford a Constable, might buy a Fox Talbot instead.
Jeffrey sees the photograph as an example of the conceptual game “in which one step forward delivers things and words and one step back discloses the scene itself in all its natural complexity” (3). One the one hand I see it as a romantic view of rural life that has personal links to my life and on the other hand as a photograph taken by someone more interested in process and technology than the picture, rather like those internet conversations about pixels that appear to reduce photography to a technological arms-race. But, my interpretation is no more right than Jeffrey’s nor has this eminent art historian and critic has in any way missed the point, far from it.
The haystack is a prefect example of the practical application of Roland Barthes concept of “The Death of the Author” (7) and the idea of “Creative Attention” as proposed by Ainslie Ellis and Jonathan Bayer (8). (These ideas have been discussed in previous essays – see note viii below)
The post modernist view which is strongly based on Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author argues that whilst “the sway of the author remains powerful” the viewer is the primary controller of Art’s meaning. Barthes argues that reducing the influence of the author “utterly transforms” a piece of art and The Haystack is a perfect example of this process. Its power as a photograph is built upon a complex combination of its original context including the history of Fox Talbot and his competition with Daguerre, the mysteries and ambiguities that exist inside the frame and its aesthetic appeal but this is only relevant as a springboard for the ideas the viewer creates by engaging in a dialogue with the image. Harking back to Bayer’s idea, The Haystack releases its meanings slowly and has been doing so for over 175 years.
(I have also looked at this photograph in the context of semiotics here.)
Notes on Text
(i) Fox talbot patented the calotype in 1843. Light sensitive paper was exposed in a camera, developed and fixed to create a negative. A print was made by exposing another sheet of light sensitive paper placed in contact with the negative. (1) I was intrigued to find a letter in the de Montford archive where he uses the term “photograph” as a generic term “Several photographic processes being now known, which are materially different from each other, I consider it to be absolutely necessary to distinguish them by different names, in the same way that we distinguish different styles of painting or engraving. Photographs executed on a silver plate have received, and will no doubt retain, the name of Daguerréotype. The new kind of photographs, which are the subject of this letter, I propose to distinguish by the name of Calotype; a term which, I hope, when the become known, will not be found to have been misapplied.” (
(ii) Since the advent of silage hay is is used far less for animal feeding and when it is used it is bailed and stacked as opposed to just stacked. The art of making a haystack has nearly disappeared in England but in many parts of Southern and Eastern Europe both the stack and the the unique triangular knives that are used to carve out the hay are still common.
(iii) Fox Talbot’s great contribution to the process of photography was the concept of printing multiple copies of the same picture from a single negative. The Pencil of Nature was the first ever photo book and ran to to six separate volumes that in total contained twenty four calotypes.
(iv) By all accounts Fox-Talbot was a brilliant man, as a gentleman scientist he explored many fields and was awarded a honorary Doctors of Laws degree by Edinburgh University not for his contribution to the arts or even his political career (he served in Palmerston’s government when the MP for Chippenham) but for his many contributions to science. In mathematics there is the “Talbot’s Curve”, in physics “Talbot’s Law” and the “Talbot” is a unit of luminous energy; there are two species names after him in the filed of botany and for good measure there is a Talbot crater on the moon. (4)
(v) He also points out that “you just can’t get the staff” saying that the chief difficulty he faces is the “paucity” of “skilful manual assistance”.
(vi) The full text reads: “I intend sending you a Copy of my new work the Pencil of Nature which I expect will be published tomorrow. I have met with difficulties innumerable in this first attempt at Photographic publication, & therefore I hope all imperfections will be candidly allowed for, and excused – I have every reason to hope the work will improve greatly as it proceeds, & that British Talent will come forward and assist the enterprise The Complexity of the Art requires a division of labour; one person should invent new processes while another puts in execution those already ascertained, but hitherto I have been the chief operator myself in the different branches of the invention.” (Document number 5013 in The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot held by the De Montford University (5))
(vii) It is important to recognise that Larry J Schaaf has recorded approximately 10,000 letters to and from Fox Talbot so it would be quite wrong to give the impression that I have done anymore than skimmed the surface of this resource. I concentrated on reading the letters written between early 1843 and late 1844 which covered the period of The Haystack photograph and the publication of The Pencil of Nature.
(1) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books
(3) Jeffrey, Ian ( 2008) How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers. London: Thames and Hudson.
(6) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.
(7) Barthes, Roland (1968) The Death of the Author. (Included within Image, music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath (1977)) London: Fontana Press
(8) Bayer, Jonathan (1977) Reading Photographs: Understanding the Aesthetics of Photography. The Photographers’ Gallery. New York: Pantheon
(2) Fox Talbot, William Henry (1844) The Pencil of Nature (accessed at PCCA 6.7.15) – http://www.photocriticism.com/members/archivetexts/photohistory/talbot/talbotpencila.html
(4) Schaaf, Larry J. The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot (accessed at the de Montford University Fox Talbot archive 6.7.15) – http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/talbot/biography.html
(5) Schaaf, Larry J. The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot (accessed at the de Montford University Fox Talbot archive 6.7.15) – http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk