WILLIAM HENRY FOX TALBOT:
Pioneer Photographer and Scientist
By Bill Dobbins
The “camera” has been known for centuries. The camera obscura was used to project images on a wall and artists were familiar with the use of projecting images with a lens to allow them to create accurate tracings of subjects. But no system for fixing those images existed until the introduction of the daguerrotype in 1839.
But daguerrotypes were on-off positive photos that couldn’t be reproduced without being rephotographed. However, a new technology was introduced in the 1840s by William Henry Fox Talbot that allowed for making a photo negative that could then be used to produced any number of positive copies. This method was later supplanted by the use of wet-plate, dry-plate and later film photo processes, but it was a big step forward for photographic technology at the time.
William Henry Fox Talbot (11 February 1800 – 17 September 1877) was an English scientist and inventor who invented the salted paper and calotype processes, precursors to photographic processes of the later 19th and 20th centuries. His work, in the 1840s on photomechanical reproduction, led to the creation of the photoglyphic engraving process, the precursor to photogravure. He was the holder of a controversial patent which affected the early development of commercial photography in Britain. He was also a noted photographer who contributed to the development of photography as an artistic medium. He published The Pencil of Nature (1844–46), which was illustrated with original salted paper prints from his calotype negatives, and made some important early photographs of Oxford, Paris, Reading, and York. – Wikipedia
The calotype process involved coating paper with a sensitive emulsion, exposing it and later developing and fixing the resulting negative image. The calotype process produced a translucent original negative image from which multiple positives could be made by direct contact printing. The quality of the photos was inferior in detail to daguerreotypes but they paved the way for the later development of photo technology. Of course, this process involved very long exposures, so scenes with moving subjects could not be captured and the use of paper negatives means they lacked the detail we would later come to expect from more advanced photo processes.
Talbot patented and then disclosed the process in a paper presented to the Royal Society in June of 1841.
Something of a polymath, highly talented and accomplished in many areas, Talbot was elected to the Royal Society in 1831 for his work on the integral calculus, and researched in optics, chemistry, electricity and other subjects such as etymology and ancient history.
Talbot had a love of nature and landscapes so it was with the development of photography that this merged with his scientific interests in optics and photochemistry. Originally, he tried sketching Italian landscapes but realized that he lacked sufficient artistic talent. So he turned in 1823 to the use of a camera obscura as a drawing aid, but was not satisfied with the results
Again in October of 1833, he met with failure when he tried using the camera lucida, a device that projected and image onto paper for tracing – versions of which are still in use by artists today.
In a “eureka moment” it occurred to Talbot he could imprint the image on chemically sensitized paper. Returning to England in January 1834, he conducted many experiments and by eventually was able to obtain “negatives’ by employing tiny camera obscuras and paper sensitized with excess silver nitrate and fixed with excess common salt.
There had been other attempts to create permanent negative photographs but most resulting in images gradually darkening with exposure to light. Talbot succeeded in devising several ways of chemically stabilizing his results, making them sufficiently insensitive to further exposure that direct sunlight could be used to print the negative image produced in the camera onto another sheet of salted paper, creating a positive. – Wikipedia
Unfortunately for Talbot, his photographic process did not meet with much commercial success. He also got involved with patent disputes regarding this technology. So he achieved much less acclaim for this invention that he might have expected. However, his paper on the calotype did bring him the honor of the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society (1842) for the most outstanding piece of research on light during the previous two years. In the middle 1840’s he published two of the earliest books illustrated with photographs.
Of course Talbot was also a photographer as well as inventor and we still have many photos he created to demonstrate his artistic ability as well as examples of what kind of images his technology was capable of creating.
WILLIAM HENRY FOX TALBOT
BOOKS AT AMAZON
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
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