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The Beginning and the End of the World, By Robert Crawford
A historical snapshot of St Andrews
Monday 22 August 2011
St Andrews is the home of golf and a historic university; it's also where William met Kate.
Yet this book looks at the town's place in the early development of photography. Poet and St Andrews academic Robert Crawford aims to explain how it "came to be the first town in the world to be documented thoroughly through photography". Most of the book is structured as a series of short portraits of major St Andrews figures in the early 1840s, all connected by local interest in William Henry Fox Talbot's new calotype process. All were also members of the town's Literary and Philosophical Society, an eclectic gathering of men (no women allowed) where town met gown and art mingled with science.
The most fascinating character is Sir David Brewster, scientist, polymath and inventor of the kaleidoscope. By the 1840s he was an academic at St Andrews University and had become interested in photography through his friendship with Fox Talbot. Brewster was one of the first people to write about photography in any depth; for Crawford, he is "the greatest early English-language theorist of photography".
Crawford attempts to connect St Andrews's experimentation in the new medium with tumultuous events; for example, the Disruption of 1843, when hundreds left the established church to found the Free Kirk in protest at the influence of wealthy patrons, and the anonymous publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by another St Andrews figure, Robert Chambers. Vestiges, which appeared in 1844, upset Christians with its implication that humankind might not be the apex of creation, annoyed scientists with its trespass on their territory, and miffed Darwin by pre-empting some of his then unpublished ideas.
Crawford skillfully links the controversies with the photographs those involved created. It's perhaps unfortunate that many he describes in detail are not included in the book, but those that are captivate with beautiful, painterly compositions. The final chapter is an attempt to link the scientific advances of the 1840s to St Andrews University's current research into areas such as climate change; the link is a little strained. Nonetheless, there's plenty here to re-ignite interest in a small Fife town's role in the early years of the game-changing technology where art and science most perfectly meet.
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