Talbot’s “Selfie” a Composite Image?

I’ve long been fascinated by this Calotype taken by William Henry Fox Talbot and Nicolaas Henneman. It appears in several biographies of Talbot as well as historical accounts of the early days of photography. Talbot was one of the early pioneers of photography and some historians argue that it was he, and not Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, who should be credited as the true inventor of photography. Although that controversy may never be resolved, it is clear that Talbot was devastated by Daguerre’s recognition and celebrity. Talbot spent the next several years trying to balance the scales in his favor.

Soon after patenting the Calotype in 1841, Talbot invested in the Reading Establishment, a photographic studio and printing business started by his former valet Nicolaas Henneman in the town of Reading outside of London. The business operated from 1843-1846 and it was here that the photographic prints for Talbot’s Pencil of Nature were produced. This book, the first to be illustrated with photographic prints, represents an important milestone in the history of photography.

According to several descriptions of this well-known photograph, the scene depicts Talbot at work in the Reading Establishment. I’ve often wondered if this image wasn’t some sort of elaborate multiple exposure self-portrait that Fox Talbot and his assistant concocted. The individuals in the photo look quite similar in appearance. Could they be the same person? One could argue that Fox Talbot is both the photographer and subject, while the person standing both to the far left and inside the building look remarkably similar in appearance as well.

Is it possible they could have sequentially masked different parts of the scene during exposure to create a composite? Or perhaps they combined multiple paper negatives to achieve a final print. Talbot’s Calotype process resulted in paper negatives that were then contacted printed, while the Daguerrotype was a direct positive process that could not be reproduced. Talbot’s paper negative process would easily lend itself to composite printing.

Since no one from this photo is alive to dispute my theory, I choose to believe they somehow masked part of the scene and moved around during the exposure to place Talbot in multiple positions. I can imagine Talbot, still stinging from Daguerre’s fame and fortune, running from spot to spot to get into position between separate exposures muttering to himself, “Take that Daguerre, you can’t do this with your Daguerrotype…”

If, in fact, this image does depict multiple Talbots, it’s just as likely to have been compiled during printing. Combination printing evolved along with photography and goes back at least as far as the 1850’s. Oscar Rejlander and his friend Henry Peach Robinson both created well-known, but controversial, composite images using elaborate combination printing techniques. Rejlander in fact learned the craft of photography and printing from Henneman. Is it possible that Henneman and Talbot were already experimenting with combination printing when the image of the Reading Establishment was created?


In doing a little more research, I discovered that this is indeed a composite image, but not exactly what I expected. Often displayed as a single image, it is in fact one half of the composite photograph shown here. According to captions, the left hand image depicts Talbot as photographer, while the right hand image shows Henneman at work.

Long before the days of digital imaging and photo editing software a number of photographers used multiple exposures and combination printing techniques to painstakingly create composite photographs or photomontages. Reijlander and Robinson were followed by Jerry Uelsmann and others.

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With the digital photo editing tools available today, it is relatively simple to combine elements of different images in composite form. In ophthalmic imaging we use auto-montage tools to create composite images from two or more fundus photos. Although it opens endless creative possibilities, digital imaging takes some the fun and challenge out of traditional multi-exposure and combination printing techniques.

I recently created a composite selfie (of sorts) as an homage to the early pioneers of composite photography. Taken in the Felsenkeller brewery museum in Monschau, Germany, it depicts a room filled with a vast collection of beer bottles from around the world. To me, it’s reminiscent of Talbot’s photograph of the Reading Establishment.


Although the same individual appears three times in the image, it is not combined from multiple exposures or manipulated with Photoshop. The image is unaltered from the original camera file with the exception of resizing it for the web. It was created entirely in-camera, using the panoramic feature of an iPhone. During capture, panning was paused long enough for me to move into the next position before panning resumed. As I was moving from position to position, I thought again of the Talbot image and whether he had moved from spot to spot to pose as both photographer and subject. It would be pretty cool if he did.

Photography has come a long way since Talbot invented his process in 1839. I wonder what he would do with today’s photographic tools and processes.

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