Both the earliest and the most up-to-date photographic technologies come together to uncanny effect in Mat Collishaw’s virtual reality magnum opus Thresholds, which had its first unveiling at Photo London this yesterday morning (17 May) and will doubtless generate huge queues throughout the fair. Donning a virtual reality (VR) headset, earphones and backpack, you are miraculously transported back to 1839 and to a long-demolished upstairs room in Birmingham’s King Edward’s School, where British scientist Henry Fox Talbot first presented his photographic prints to the public.
It’s a full-on sensory experience as you wander through an utterly convincing hammer-beamed neo-Gothic interior (then the latest in modern architecture), which Charles Barry and Pugin had designed just the year before, and which was knocked down in the 1930s. It is possible to touch and peer into rows of vitrines filled with Fox Talbot’s first prints as well as his then-state-of-the-art photographic and optical equipment—all of which now looks utterly quaint. There’s a warm crackling fire and even—thanks to a specially concocted room scent—the smell of burning embers. (Also watch out for the mice that skitter away as you enter the space, the moths hovering around the lights and a little spider that creeps across a portrait of the school’s founder, Edward VI.)
Collishaw not only offers a chance to experience a piece of photographic history (most of Talbot’s actual early prints either do not survive or can no longer be viewed in daylight) but the piece also provides a thoughtful immersion into a broader historical context, which is especially pertinent today. For viewed through the (virtual) window down in the street below are rampaging crowds of Chartists, protesting against the new technologies of industrialisation that they (correctly) feared would alter their world forever. As we enjoy this wraparound portal into the past, this is still something we can all relate to, as algorithms and robots increasingly replace our jobs and cyberspace and developments in VR offer what seem to many to be preferable to reality itself.