In describing the production of a work like Leaf of a Plant in his Pencil of Nature (1844-46), William Henry Fox Talbot explained that a delicate leaf “is laid flat upon a sheet of prepared paper” and “then covered with a glass, which is pressed down tight upon it by means of screws. This done, it is placed in the sunshine for a few minutes, until the exposed parts of the paper have turned dark brown or nearly black. . . . The leaves of plants thus represented in white upon a dark background, make very pleasing pictures.” “Very pleasing” woefully understates the active beauty of this arresting image. One’s imagination can easily transform it into a gossamer-winged insect flying up to a plant. The skeletal forms yield an x-ray vision of the specimens’ interior structure.
In addition to the title, Talbot signed and dated this negative in ink on the verso, most likely with presentation in mind. Its early provenance is unknown, but he recorded in his memoranda book that on April 14, 1839, he sent a photograph of an “orchis leaf” to the famous horticulturist John Lindley, a fellow botanist whom he had known for years. If this indeed was a present to Lindley, it was of a subject carefully selected by Talbot, for orchids were Lindley’s particular area of study.
Larry Schaaf, William Henry Fox Talbot, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2002), 20. ©2002 J. Paul Getty Trust.