Henry Fox Talbot, The Oriel Window, Lacock Abbey, seen from the inside c. Summer 1835

Could the window picture be read as an emblem of itself, the very photogenic drawing process that has made its own existence possible? When you think about it, Talbot has set up his camera at exactly the point in the South Gallery where the sensitive paper once sat in his own modified camera obscura. His camera obscura looks out at the inside of the metaphorical lens of the camera of his house (which he later claimed was “the first that was ever known to have drawn its own picture”). He is, in other words, taking a photograph of photography at work making this photograph. (9)

Geoffrey Batchen offers expansive and creative readings of early photogenic drawings by Henry Fox Talbot. I find his exploration of the “desiring production” of photographs in Each Wild Idea and Burning With Desire to be compelling. But the closer I look at his essays, the more I wonder if he is really exploring his own desire rather than the desires of early photographers. Many of his assertions seem quite astute on the surface, but as I think them through they sort of dissolve.

In a letter to Lady Mary Cole about her own photographic “experimentalizing” dated August 9, 1839, Talbot advised her that “the object to begin with is a window & its bars placing the instrument in the interior of the room.” So, for Talbot, a picture of the inside of a window is an exemplary photograph—the first photograph one should attempt, the origin point of one’s photography, the origin of all photography. (9-10)

The scare quotes around experimentalizing call attention to the mentalizing part. The last postulate—that a photograph of a window taken from the inside is “the origin of all photography”—is certainly metaphorical and poetic, but it is also a bit ham-fisted and wrong. When I read Batchen’s essay on “desiring production” the memory of the first photograph I took with my new digital camera was fresh in my mind.

Jeff Ward, The Kitchen Window, Apartment in Roseville, seen from the inside c. Winter 2005

It took about three hours for the camera battery to charge. I had placed the charger in the kitchen, because there was an accessible outlet. I raised the camera to my eye and took a snapshot of the multifaceted greenhouse window at the end of the kitchen. Now, in retrospect, I realize that I was standing immediately in front of a wall which displays several of my earlier photographs. From the standpoint of perspective, a future critic reconstructing my space could note that the image is taken from the perspective of my photographs gazing out the window. I thought of the image as a test to see if the camera worked; this is not the only possible interpretation. Someone else might think it was symbolic.

Krista pointed me at an interview of Eudora Welty discussing the symbolism in her stories a while ago. I think it fits well here.

Conversations: In earlier interviews you have warned readers about the dangers of overanalyzing stories. Yet a lot of critics have talked about the mythological content of your stories, such as the name “Phoenix” in “A Worn Path,” and in “Death of a Traveling Salesman” the idea of Sonny as Prometheus, the bearer of light, and his wife as the great Earth Mother. Are you consciously using the material symbolically?

Welty: Yes, I know. I think that sounds like a literal way to take it. In the case of “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” I have no idea of any of that which you were just saying.

Conversations: When the mule’s face looks in the window there’s been . . . Somebody wrote a scholarly article about just what this mule’s face meant.

Welty: I meant a mule was looking in the window. (188)

Welty goes on to explain her particular criteria for using symbolic imagery—if such a symbol is natural (something that would be completely normal in the context of the story, such as the name Phoenix) then it is fine to use it. It generates resonant “overtones” for the story. However, it seems certain that these overtones are secondary meanings rather than the primary meaning instilled by a particular choice. It is easy to get caught up in symbolic meaning and go too far. I think Batchen does precisely this. He marshals several points of evidence about Talbot’s experiments that don’t hold up well under close inspection. I think I will discuss these further in the future. But for now, I just wanted to preserve the Welty bit from Conversations with Eudora Welty edited by Peggy Witman Prenshaw, because I think it is something that every scholar should heed.

Welty: In The Robber Bridegroom I used fairy tales and real folklore and historical people alike and simultaneously. I think it’s right there—so why shouldn’t I avail myself? But it is kind of frightening to think that people see ponderous allegorical meanings—

Conversations: And even would take to worry about that old mule looking in the window.

Welty: I know; I don’t think that’s fair; I really don’t. Not fair to that mule. This isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate genuine criticism— (189)