I am a camera

Photography - Patricia Holland on the specimens and marvels of Victorian photography

The photograph says it all: a table carefully set with a polished silver urn; a china tea-set patterned with flowers and birds; a toast rack; a neat table cloth. The calm, self-satisfied decency of the image oozes Victorian values. A present-day version of such a picture would probably be an advertisement, or it might appear in the consumer pages of a newspaper. In the 1840s, it was, among other things, a technological marvel, and it expressed a new way of understanding the world.

In its original form, this photograph appears in an album assembled in the 1840s by William Henry Fox Talbot, intellectual, polymath, gentleman farmer, amateur scientist, and the man who established the foundations of modern photography. The exhibition "Specimens and Marvels", at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, celebrates the bicentenary of Talbot's birth, and there you can see this picture and others by Talbot and his contemporaries. You can peer at delicate original prints from the museum's collection, lovingly preserved and regularly monitored to ensure that even the dim lighting will not damage their precious uniqueness. Alternatively, you can turn the pages of The Pencil of Nature, the first commercially produced book to be illustrated with photographs, here faithfully reproduced and laminated. Or you can select an album and flick through it electronically on a screen. Choose your image; press the button; enlarge or shrink. Today, everything is accessible, forms are malleable, and the difference between the "original" and the copy has all but disappeared. The invention of photo-graphy pioneered ways of perceiving reality that have dominated 150 years of knowledge, but that already seem oddly out of date.

Changes in ways of seeing creep up on us slowly. The need to observe and record more accurately seemed increasingly important from the early 19th century. Measured observation was necessary in a world in which engineering, science and industrialisation were transforming social life. Although "art" seemed distant from this grubby reality, the use of optical tools was beginning to alter the ways in which artists set out to see and record. As part of the current "Encounters" exhibition at the National Gallery in London, David Hockney pays homage to the intensely lifelike portraits by Ingres, painted in the early years of the 19th century, which were probably made with the use of one of these popular devices, a camera lucida. Hockney's own portrait sketches of the National Gallery security staff use the same technique. The camera lucida is simply a prism on a stick, which helps the artist record the scene in front of him in a way that is more mechanical and, therefore, more precise. Significantly, Hockney argues that once this new, naturalistic way of seeing had been established, it no longer depended on having the tool to hand. Artists - and presumably their public, too - had learnt to see their subjects with greater accuracy and individuality.

In 1833, Talbot took a camera lucida prism with him on his honeymoon to Lake Como in Italy, but was exasperated with the results he produced. His sketches were "melancholy to behold", he wrote, adding "how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed on paper". By 1841, he was able to patent his photographic process, whereby pictures were produced "solely by the action of light, without any help from the artist's hand", as he wrote triumphantly in The Pencil of Nature.

Famously, Talbot's first photographs came from his immediate environment - his estate at Lacock Abbey near Bath. They recorded what he saw with a mid-Victorian romantic sensibility: "The soliloquy of the broom"; "Sunlit objects on a window ledge"; the haystack; the ladder; the family and servants who could be persuaded to hold their position for long enough to produce tasteful studies. As well as the "Table set for breakfast", Talbot photographed a "Table set for tea" and various other tables, as well as bookshelves, candelabra and the other signatures of a comfortable lifestyle. The photo of hats lined up in the milliner's window is one of the first hymns to the culture of shopping. But Talbot's interests went beyond his immediate surroundings and his artistic aspirations. Although his albums were a family record, they were also visual notes of experiments with technical problems posed by light, exposure and paper quality. And they were trade catalogues, laying out the possibilities of photography for those interested in licensing the process. Alongside the fruit-sellers on the lawn, the gentlemen shaking hands and the lady with a parasol, they display architectural studies, facsimiles of lace, botanical studies of leaves and ferns, photographs of sculpture and copies of paintings.

Within four or five years, Talbot was experimenting with the possibilities of reproducibility. A reproduction could be startlingly accurate - for example, he produced facsimiles of historical documents by "superimposition", or contact printing. But, when copying works of art, he was fascinated by the possibility of enlarging details from paintings or moving the camera to change the scale.

From these early days, photography served scholarship, industry and commerce, but it also became an important leisure activity. Tourism remained unthinkable without a photograph. One of Talbot's earliest books was Sun Pictures in Scotland, "23 calotypes based on the life and writings of Sir Walter Scott", which cashed in on the vogue for all things Scottish, encouraged by the royal family. The subscribers included many aristocratic names, and Queen Victoria herself. But the whole point of commercial photography was that it could appeal beyond the cultured few. If you couldn't travel, you could, by the 1850s, buy a photographic print not only of Scotland, but also of the most remote and spectacular parts of the world.

A famous panorama of Talbot's photographic establishment at Reading, enlarged to life size in the Bradford exhibition, shows the range of his activities. This was an industry in the making, but in many ways it was all based on that calm domestic scene. The all too innocent image of the mid-Victorian well-laid table, waiting for the family to gather round it, is a celebration of the domestic pleasures of consumerism. In those early days of the consumer society, the newly prosperous middle classes were beginning to learn ways of looking around them that were based on purchase and ownership rather than on the observation and accuracy needed by production - something that today's lifestyle magazines, overflowing with domestic interiors and material possessions, take for granted.

"Specimens and Marvels: the work of William Henry Fox Talbot" is at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, until 9 July (01274 202 030)

"Encounters: new art from old" is at the National Gallery, London, until 17 September (020-7747 2887)