In 1839, at nearly the same moment that Daguerre showed his invention, the Victorian polymath Henry Talbot announced a wholly different photographic process. Talbot’s was as yet inferior to the daguerreotype, but it would provide the path for nearly all subsequent photography until the digital age. Unlike daguerreotypes, each of which is one-of-a-kind, Talbot’s process was one of multiples: with materials and procedures that were relatively simple and inexpensive, Talbot could print numerous positive photographs from a single negative exposed in the camera.
In this image, made barely five years into the history of photography, Talbot found a daring composition and a compelling intersection of the religious and secular, the historic and present day. His photograph shows the unfinished base and part of the shaft of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, with the early-18th-century church of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields in the background. Curiously—and fortunately—Talbot chose not to show the entire column with its bronze capital and seventeen-foot-high stone statue of Nelson in a vertical format or from a more distant vantage point; instead he framed a more interesting composition in which the massive base of the column—not yet adorned with its bronze reliefs—dominates the foreground and the steeple of Saint Martin’s touches the top edge of the picture.