Fox Talbot and Early Photography

Fox Talbot Early Photography

The recent exhibition Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph at the Science Museum in London which ended on September 11th 2016 was described as ‘magical to behold’ by  Time Out  and ‘ground-breaking’ by The Times.  I found it extremely enjoyable as it told the story of the pioneers of early photography very capably as well as displaying a great body of their work.

Central to the story of early photography is William Henry Fox Talbot, who was born in February 1800.  He attended Cambridge University in 1817 and went onto become a gentleman scientist, inventor, Egyptologist, member of parliament, mathematician, astronomer, archaeologist and transcriber of Chaldean cuneiform texts as well as a pioneer of photography.

It was a struggle with his sketchbook that put him on the road to photography: in 1833 at Lake Como in Italy, he found it difficult to capture the scenery adequately by sketching it with the aid of a Camera Lucida (an instrument used by draftsmen at the time which uses a prism to direct rays of light onto paper producing an image and from which a drawing can be made.)  This started him on the journey of discovery with light-sensitive paper to automate the process that he was to pursue at his home in Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.

Investigations with silver nitrate and sunlight actually go back as far as Angelo Sala (1576-1637).  Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744) was the first to create photograms (a process that does not require a camera) with paper masks and Talbot would have been well aware of the work of Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) and Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) who also worked on photograms of leaves and other objects.  These could not adequately fixed and faded quickly. Talbot built on this work, experimenting with plants and lace on paper coated with silver nitrate and fixing the images with salt to produce sciagraphs – drawings of shadows.

Talbot created the first negative in 1835, which minimized exposure time considerably compared to previous methods.  He had help from his friend Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), one of the leading British scientists of the time, and another formidable polymath, who was an astronomer, mathematician, chemist, inventor and experimental photographer. It was Herschel who solved the problem of ‘fixing’ pictures (used by both Talbot and Daguerre) and was also the first to use the terms ‘photography’ and ‘negative’.

There is some debate as to is the inventor of photography or even who was the most influential of the pioneers.  France can claim Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), inventor of a process known as heliography, who used a Camera Obscura to record an image of his country estate in 1826 via an eight-hour exposure.  Better known is Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, (1787-1851), a former architect and artist who collaborated with Niépce, and who had used the Camera Obscura to assist with his paintings in his earlier career.  He developed the Daguerrotype process after Niépce‘s death – a process based on light-sensitive, silver-plated copper, unique in the family of photographic process, in that the image is produced on metal directly without an intervening negative.   Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887) also holds a claim as the developer of the direct positive process and the first in the world to hold a photo exhibition.  Bayard’s story embodies the struggle for recognition and adds a human dimension in the midst of all the science on show at the museum.   It also serves up one of the most interesting images of the exhibition. Bayard was persuaded to postpone announcing his new positive process to the French Academy of Sciences by a friend of Daguerre, which cost him the recognition he deserved, and led him to create the first staged (or faked) photograph entitled, Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, which was on show at the Science Museum exhibition. The image portrays the photographer as a corpse, and M. Bayard wrote a fake suicide note on the back:

“The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life….! … He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognised or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.”

The struggle to be recognised as the inventor of photography continued as, in late 1838, Talbot started drawing up a paper for presentation to the Royal Society with news arriving early in the New Year from Paris that Daguerre had succeeded in capturing images from a Camera Obscura and presented this work to the French Academy of Sciences – though no details of how this had been accomplished were given. Fox Talbot faced the loss of his discovery if Daguerre’s method proved identical to his but in the low light of an English winter, he could not demonstrate his own process.  However, Michael Faraday  displayed some of Talbot’s  examples from 1835 at the Royal Institution and in January 1839, Talbot’s “Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing” was read before the Royal Society in London. The BBC History entry for Talbot summarizes his achievements from there onwards:

“Fox Talbot went on to develop the three primary elements of photography: developing, fixing, and printing. Although simply exposing photographic paper to the light produced an image, it required extremely long exposure times. By accident, he discovered that there was an image after a very short exposure. Although he could not see it, he found he could chemically develop it into a useful negative. The image on this negative was then fixed with a chemical solution. This removed the light-sensitive silver and enabled the picture to be viewed in bright light. With the negative image, Fox Talbot realised he could repeat the process of printing from the negative. Consequently, his process could make any number of positive prints, unlike the Daguerreotypes. He called this the ‘calotype’ and patented the process in 1841. The following year was rewarded with a medal from the Royal Society for his work.”

The calotype process produced a translucent original negative image from which subsequent positive images could be made by contact printing whereas the direct positive daguerreotype process was not reproducible.  The calotype’s image was inferior in sharpness to the daguerreotype as the use of paper as a negative meant that the fibres of the paper were visible in prints which made them grainy compared to the strikingly clear and detailed images of daguerreotypes, though that grain provided a painterly artistic quality that came to the fore (using later processes) in the the Pictorialism movement described in my post on the subject.

Talbot patented the process in 1841 and was reluctant to share his knowledge with others, which cost him ground in the race for mass adoption.  However, calotypes and salted paper prints remained popular in the UK and the continent outside France until the collodion process (based on cellulose nitrate, dissolved in ether and alcohol) enabled photographers to make glass negatives later in the nineteenth century.  The collodion process combined the desirable repeatable nature of the calotype process with the sharpness and clarity of the daguerreotype and largely displaced them both.

Talbot’s early work describes a world far removed from our times and his salt paper prints  do have a resemblance to drawings in some cases – particularly those of buildings.  Time Out’s review of the exhibition describes the magic of these old images:  “Even subjects as mundane as an open door or a bookshelf possess a kind of magnetism by virtue of being among the oldest in existence.”  I particularly enjoyed Fox Talbot’s The Footman (1840); The Ancient Vestry (1844-46); High Street Oxford (1842) and The Square at Orleans (1843).  My favourite is Nelson’s Column under Construction (1844), which is shown on this post.

There were also many pictures of early photography by his contemporaries to enjoy at the exhibition, such as Two Newhaven Fisherman by painter-photographer team David Octavius and Robert Adamson (1845); A portrait of Michael Faraday by Antoine Claudet (a gold toned daguerreotype); Panorama of the Bay of Baia near Naples by the Reverend Calvert Richard Jones (1846); and The Pantheon Paris by Charles Louis Chevalier (1842), which most closely resembles a drawing to my eye.   The large painting The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel by Daguerre was impressive and it was interesting to see a sectored disk assembly from an experimental model of a calculating machine developed by Babbage, a correspondent of Fox Talbot’s.

Time Out’s review sums up the interplay between these early pioneers:  “Great storytelling in the early stages of this exhibition, which focuses on Talbot but includes examples by his European counterparts, gives a pacy account of these overlapping achievements. It’s science heavy (this is the Science Museum, after all) but also surprisingly poetic, with wall texts setting scenes such as the one in 1833 when Talbot, on the shores of Lake Como, wondered aloud how he might make ‘fairy pictures, creations of a moment… fix themselves upon the paper’.”

Talbot was more scientist than an artist and spent the latter part of his life developing printing techniques such as photoglyphic engraving, the forerunner to the halftone and photogravure processes, but one of his observations about photography in ‘The Pencil of Nature’ (1844) is very illustrative of the non- scientific nature of photography that is more true than ever in the digital era:

“It frequently happens moreover – and this is one of the charms of photography – that the operator himself discovers on examination, perhaps long afterwards, that he has depicted many things he had no notion of at the time.”

This, for me, is one of the very greatest discoveries a photographer can make today.


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