The Fleeting and the Enduring: A Salt Photograph of Nelson’s Column

nelsons-column

Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, William Fox Talbot, 1843 ©The Wilson Centre for Photography

During a recent visit to the Tate Britain exhibition ‘Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860’, which displays early salt print photographs, one image in particular caught my eye. Nelson’s Column (1843) shows the construction of the eponymous column on Trafalgar Square. The viewer sees the bottom of the famous London landmark, shrouded in scaffolding. In the background is St Martin-in-the-Fields church. What most interests me, however, is an apparently irrelevant detail: the advertising posters displayed on the hoarding around the column. The contrast between the enduring column and the ephemeral posters and playbills is mirrored in both the transience and permanence of the photograph itself.
Salt photography was one of the earliest types of photography, invented in Britain in the 1830s by William Fox Talbot, who also took the photo under discussion. This type of photography used a salt-based solution to fix images created by a camera obscura on paper. [1] Along with the French invention of the Daguerreotype this innovative process gave photographers the ability to record a fleeting moment, seemingly forever. Over time it became apparent, however, that the photographs printed on paper were not enduring; any exposure to light degrades the image. Talbot’s photos, although an attempt to capture the beauties of the world forever, in fact turned out to be most ephemeral.
The image shown on the photograph Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square reflects this tension between the lasting and the fleeting. The column was built between 1840 and 1843. As a commemoration of one of the greatest naval commanders in British history the column is closely linked to Britain’s imperial identity. The column was built to last, and serve as a constant reminder of the country’s achievements. The church of St Martin’s was erected, in its current form, in 1726 and represents the enduring importance of the Anglican Church to the British state and society.
These two Classical structures are the centre of the viewer’s focus. At the bottom of the photograph, the posters on the hoarding around Nelson’s Column represent the transient aspects of the built environment. They display a mixture of text and images, advertising shows and spectacles which could be visited around the capital. The display as a whole would have been ever-changing as billposters layered new adverts over the old ones. The use of advertising posters became mainstream practice at the start of the 19th century, and is perhaps most famously represented in John Parry’s ‘A London Street Scene’ (1935). As Sadiah Qureshi demonstrates, Parry’s image also juxtaposes the transience of the posters ‘to the seeming permanence of St Paul’s Cathedral.’[2] Nelson’s Column serves a similar purpose in Talbot’s photograph. Whereas in Parry’s drawing the juxtaposition is an artistic invention, Talbot merely captured a scene already available on the street. His artist’s eye spotted the suitability of the composition, but the posters were already there, right around the column. His photograph shows that on the streets of the Victorian capital, there were tensions between the permanent and the temporary. At the same time, the newly invented art of photography was trying to find ways to make fleeting moments last forever, but was not able yet to shed/overcome those tensions between the eternal and the ephemeral.

[1] For a more extensive discussion of the invention process see: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm

[2] Qureshi, Sadiah. Peoples on Parade: exhibitions, empire and anthropology in nineteenth century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011, p. 49.

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