Lois Rosson is a historian of science and technology based in Los Angeles. She is currently writing a book about images of outer space and their legibility.
In 1835, William Henry Fox Talbot finally succeeded in producing a crude photograph of his country estate. He triumphantly declared that his was the first house ever known to have drawn its own picture. Fox Talbot described the calotype, his contribution to the photomechanical process, as an eradication of human intervention. In Talbot’s description, the photogenic drawing was formed “by the mere action of Light upon sensitive paper.” Photography offered nature a “pencil” with which to render herself via optical and chemical means alone.
Fox Talbot’s self-drawing house is a useful reminder that the development of the photograph is an automation story. By the mid-nineteenth century, rendering a detailed image no longer needed to be outsourced to a draftsman because the process could be completed instantly with a camera. Proponents of the technology emphasized that not…