Travel Back to 1839 to See the World’s First Photography Show, in Virtual Reality

  • Thresholds visualization, courtesy of Mat Collishaw and VMI Studio.

In 1839, British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot debuted what is believed to be the world’s first-ever photography exhibition, at King Edward’s School, Birmingham. This week, British artist Mat Collishaw unveils a new virtual reality work that recreates this exhibition, allowing participants to travel back to the dawn of photography to experience the show first-hand.

The work debuts at Photo London, which opens to the public on Thursday at London’s Somerset House. While some of Fox Talbot’s surviving original images have become so faded that they’re kept safe in light-proof vaults, viewers now can experience them in their virtual state.

After donning goggles and a backpack-like battery pack, visitors will be transported back nearly 180 years, into a giant room spanning over 100 feet in length. Vitrines inhabit the center of the space, containing delicate photographs in tones of black and white and sepia, but also violets, intense yellows, and haunting blues. Strategically placed objects in the physical surroundings—emulating a burning fireplace, or cool glass vitrines—are calibrated to align with the virtual imagery to create a fully haptic experience that visitors can reach out and touch.

  • Installation view of Mat Collishaw, Thresholds. Photo by Richard Eaton.

Photography, moving image, and media that plays with our perceptual abilities have long been at the forefront of Collishaw’s practice—as has a fascination with the technological developments of the Victorians. This is evidenced by his current exhibition at London’s Blain Southern gallery, which features a centerpiece that riffs on a popular Victorian special effects technique. He also has a penchant for immersive installations.

This latest work, however, takes immersion to a whole new level, pushing the limits of what has previously been technologically possible. It also marks Collishaw’s first foray into virtual reality, a medium that has been gaining momentum in the arts, such as Shezad Dawood’s trippy tour of Bengal, Kalimpong (2016) or Jordan Wolfson’s harrowing Real Violence (2017) at the Whitney Biennial.

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Thresholds came together after a meeting with photo historian Pete James, who introduced Collishaw to Fox Talbot’s work. “I’d wanted something that’s quite mundane, really, as an experience,” Collishaw says, “and I also wanted something that went beyond just an enjoyable ‘wow’ factor.” Fox Talbot’s show, for all its significance, has not been widely written about. “It was the first time the public [was] introduced to this new way of documenting the world,” explains Collishaw. “It was revolutionary.”

  • Original print by William Henry Fox Talbot. Courtesy of National Media Museum.

  • Original print by William Henry Fox Talbot. Courtesy of National Media Museum.

As such, Thresholds provides the chance to travel back in time. “In restaging the Fox Talbot exhibition, we are actually able to immerse ourselves in the environment to experience the birth of photography, but through this very new media,” says Collishaw.

The challenge in bringing Thresholds to life has been twofold: to create the virtual room as well as track down and scan a selection of the original 93 photographs. It has taken Collishaw about a year to pull together all of the pieces, including photographs, microscope pictures, copies of prints and engravings, and photogenic drawings.

The detective work has continued with the venue itself, since the original, a landmark neo-gothic revival building by famed architect Charles Barry, was demolished in the 1930s. King Edward’s School provided plans of the original building, and architectural historian and Barry expert David Blissett worked with Collishaw to fill in the blanks.

  • Thresholds visualization, courtesy of Mat Collishaw and VMI Studio.

“He’s quite picky, understandably, and has been helping us pinpoint everything we need to have inside the room,” says Collishaw, “from the dimensions and architectural features down to the accuracy of the gasoliers.”

This accuracy continues into the fully immersive VR build, which moves beyond visual stimuli to include touch, audio, and thermal sensations such as heat. Collishaw is also seeking to add grittier details such as soot on the ceiling, as well as spiders and mice. “I want all those little things that happen in real life,” he says.

“I’m going for as many different sensory stimulations as I can to convince you, or let your sensors fool your brain into believing, that you’re there. I think in VR, if you see something and reach out to touch it and it’s not there it slightly undermines the whole experience.”

  • Thresholds visualization, courtesy of Mat Collishaw and VMI Studio.

To accomplish this, Collishaw worked with VMI Studios to push the limits of what is currently possible with movement sensors. “To be able to wander around and be 100% synchronized with these objects is a very uncanny, compelling brainfuck, which is what I wanted to try and achieve there. If I’m trying to recreate the world’s first photography exhibition then it makes sense to get it as close as possible as I can.”

Thresholds also places Fox Talbot’s innovations within a social and political context. The mid-19th century marked the rise of the working-class Chartist movement, who spent two decades fighting for democratic political reform. While perusing the room’s displays, viewers can hear chanting and raised voices outside—and see Chartist protests in the street.

  • Original print by William Henry Fox Talbot. Courtesy of National Media Museum.

  • Original print by William Henry Fox Talbot. Courtesy of National Media Museum.

“These people, as well as wanting the vote and representation in Parliament, were slightly troubled by technological developments, which were a contribution to factory automation and were taking jobs away from them,” says Collishaw.

“I like the idea that once you look out the window and see these very angry people smashing windows, and then turn back into that cozy room, it has a tainted quality to it, because the social implication of these amazing innovations may not be so good for the guys outside on the cold street.”

This dichotomy continues today, he says. “We are engaged in all this wonderful progress, but there are inevitable social repercussions to it,” warns Collishaw. “Today, with the whole digital revolution—which is automation on a whole other scale—that trouble is here again.” Virtual reality is certainly opening up experiences that until now weren’t achievable. Yet, just as Fox Talbot could not have predicted what doors photography would open, perhaps VR’s true implications and potential have not yet been revealed.

—Anna Wallace-Thompson

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