Lisa McCarty

I arrived at Duke with two obsessions I wanted to explore in Documentary Fieldwork:

1 -The work of William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the positive/negative process in photography.

2- The need to finally produce a cohesive body of work from what was once my personal photo archive.

The interest in both have become unexpectedly entwined for me over the past year. I never expected the images I started shooting six years ago, just for myself at the beginning of a road trip with my now beloved Holga camera would amass to a collection of 174 rolls of medium format film that I would want to put out into the world. I also did not expect that this work would lead me on a search to define my intentions as a photographer, to research the very origins of photography as a component of my work, or that I would end up going on a pilgrimage to Lacock Abbey, William Henry Fox Talbot’s home in Wiltshire, England as part of this work.

As an imagemaker my practice is defined by a disciplined practice of relinquishing control. I utilize unpredictable cameras and photographic processes, seeking opportunities to capture chance-based abstractions that reflect the imperfect yet wondrous systems that govern perception.

Oriel Window, Lacock Abbey | 2011

Talbot himself avidly studied and wrote about optics, light, and color theory.  As a gentleman scientist, natural philosopher, and admirer of romantic poetry, Talbot’s approach to image making was defined by a disciplined exploration of and surrender to the agency of light. He was dedicated to perfecting what he called “photogenic drawing“ but also delighted in the unexpected results he encountered along the way. In his extensive journals, correspondence, and essays Talbot states that rigorous experimentation would lead to, “consequences altogether unexpected, remote from usual experience and contrary to almost universal belief.

My continued use of a film camera, especially a Holga whose output is often indeterminable, is a testament to Talbot’s legacy. It is still possible to embrace the “natural magic” inherent to the medium and I am continually astonished by even the possibility of fettering what Talbot called, “all that is fleeting and momentary,” in a photograph.

While at Duke I hope to create a photo book or series of them from my archive and will continue my research on the history of photography and photo books in tandem with this creative work.

Below are some of the images by Fox Talbot that have come to mean the most to me during this quest so far:

The Oriel Window, Seen From the Inside c. 1835

This is the first image printed from a photographic negative!

 The Pencil of Nature, 1844-1846 -Printed book in six parts with 24 salted paper prints from paper negatives c. 1844-46

In The Pencil of Nature Talbot outlines the potential uses of photography as:
- Scientific proof / Legal evidence / Record
- Artistic experiment
- For public exhibitions
- Process to copy exisiting images
- Keepsake
Within these possibilities the conceptual parameters, paradoxical aspects, and limitations of photographs
are also outlined.

Lace c. 1845 & Draped Lace c. 1840

Whether intentional or not, Talbot demonstrates that photographs are simultaneously indexical and mediated ( The image on the right was constructed by Talbot to make the lace appear as if it were draped and floating).

Honeysuckle c. 1844

This is a really iconic image for me. Fox Talbot scholar Geoffrey Batchen summarizes the importance of this photograph best:

“The photograph is at once realist and abstract, and thus points to a paradoxical aspect of the photographic vision that many future practioners would learn to exploit.”

This image represents the kind of abstraction I am interested in pursuing in my work.


And just so you know Im not completely stuck in the past, here is a list of  more contemporary practitioners who have also influenced my work- each link goes to a body of work or information about that artist of particular interest to me: