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         The History and The Culture of Chess

 November 2006

Lawrence Totaro maintains a site called Ultimate Chess Collecting in which he presents the fruits of his avocation and expertise on collecting chess paraphernalia.  Lawrence has ventured off into the related area of chess history research, specifically that of digital research, using as his impetus the ideas that: 1) as the ever-growing wealth of digitalized source material becomes available, and as the results of this research is made publicly available,  this more effective the method of research will overtake, and replace, the classical methods and 2) that one of the most important, and least used, tools of a researcher should be that of Skepticism.

The other day (around Halloween 2006) Lawrence sent me some links, as well as a book reference, noting the dissimilarities concerning the origin of a certain old photograph that featured two chess players. I followed one of the links and tasted from the stew of information, then shrugged and put it on the back burner of my little stovetop mind. Actually, I was a bit confused, thinking that the dark photograph of two men pondering a chess board was a painting, not a photograph. I've looked at so many paintings of chess players that one more didn't really interest me. Something about the picture, or maybe just the fact that someone thought it was relevant enough to examine, caused me to go back for another taste. I realized then that it was indeed a photograph and as I looked at it I started to recognize its beauty. I followed the rest of the links and saw for myself how rampant was the confusion concerning this picture. But I'm neither a historian nor a photographer, so I made a very quick visit with Google and found a site that seemed very authoritative on W. H. Fox Talbot, the accepted creator of that photograph. I sent Lawrence the contact information on the proprietor of the Talbot page. Lawrence contacted the gentleman and the mystery of the photograph was solved.

Lawrence wrote a brief monograph on the research and findings in a pdf file. Since the file is too big for me to upload, I've reproduced it below


The Chess Players

W. H. Fox Talbot

Which year, who and what exactly is it?

Many chess historians take photographs and authorities' research for granted but Lawrence Totaro, always skeptical provides the following links (with analysis) that have a "photo" supposedly taken by W.H. Fox Talbot with different years as follows:








   A History of Chess by Jerzy Gizcyki also mentions
   the “photo” on page 39 with the date 1840.

(note that the caption refers to the picture as a daguerreotype)







Now there are two very distinct versions of this image, one with Claudet on the left (above) and a very different pose with him on the right (below)







(The Sandor Family Collection, Chess Players 1844)


After jumbling through several sites, Lawrence would personally like to thank Dr. Larry J. Schaaf, both Director of The Talbot Correspondence Project at DeMontfort University in Leicester ( ) and Catalogue Raisonne project at The University of the Arts London ( for expounding on this matter.

Dr. Schaaf writes:

Thank you for your note, for this image is one of perennial interest. I can tell you for sure that it is a salt print made from a calotype negative (not a Daguerreotype). There are two closely related versions of this, one with Claudet on the right, the other with him on the left - he has the white hair. The other chap is not identified. There is no certain dating. Although Talbot did take pictures of people playing chess, in my opinion this is not one of them. There is in fact absolutely nothing to associate it with Talbot. My personal opinion is that it was done in the studio of Antoine Claudet, either as a self-portrait (done by one of his operators) of just possibly when he was teaching Nicolas Henneman. I've attached a catalogue entry I did some years ago that will explain this briefly.
best of luck in your research
Larry J. Schaaf

Mr. Schaaf goes on to write:

One of the problems, of course, is that legends get established and then repeated over and over - when this image first came to public attention around the 1970s, not many early photographers were known besides Talbot, and somebody made the assumption that it must have been done by him - from there, a likely date was postulated, and off we go... I'm hoping some day that an authority in that field (chess field) will be able to tease out some clues, either from these pictures, or from Talbot's own chess player picture A "salt print" is a modern term, not from Talbot's day His photogenic drawing process (realized in 1834 - he only had the idea whilst in Italy in 1833) was a "salt print" - but it naturally produced a negative - the same material was used to make the negative (either by contact under a leaf &c or in the camera) - another sheet of the same material was placed under the negative to make the print - it was a negative of a negative, hence a positive print - the distinction here is that it was a printout, rather than a developing process - in a camera, it would have been far far too slow to make a chess portrait The calotype (introduced 1841) was a negative process that used a short exposure to record an invisible latent image that was subsequently developed in chemistry to make it visible - this developer "amplified" the original effect of the exposure in the camera and permitted exposure times in the low seconds - in principle, this is the same as modern films The calotype negative was printed by contact on Talbot's original photogenic drawing paper (salt print) - this made a negative of a negative, hence a positive So, while people loosely call the prints they are looking at Calotypes, what they are really seeing is a photogenic drawing print (salt print) taken from a calotype (developed) negative.

Regarding the two photos, Dr. Schaaf finishes:
                   The two versions were obviously taken at the same time and almost certainly by the same photographer.








For future researchers who wish to use this print, it would be advisable to include that according to Dr. Larry J Schaaf  this salt print taken from a calotype negative is not from Talbot as previously thought, but in Antoine Claudet’s studio by or assisted with the Dutchman, Nicolas Henneman (1813-1898) and that the date is unknown.



Anyone with comments or suggestion please e-mail Mr. Lawrence Totaro or Dr. Larry J Schaaf


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