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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) and the Invention of Photography

A young English gentleman on his honeymoon sat sketching by the shore of Lake Como early in October 1833, one eye pressed close to a camera lucida. With this simple draftsman’s aid, consisting of an adjustable metal arm fastened at one end to the artist’s sketchbook or drawing board and supporting a glass prism at the other, the young man saw a refracted image of the Italian landscape superimposed as if by magic on the pages of his sketchbook. It seemed a simple task to trace the features of the village buildings, lake, and distant mountains with his pencil. But alas, it only seemed simple, he later recalled, “for when the eye was removed from the prism—in which all looked beautiful—I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold.”

The would-be artist was William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877). A graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a recently elected Liberal member of Parliament in the House of Commons, Talbot was a true polymath. His intellectual curiosity embraced the fields of mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and botany; philosophy and philology; Egyptology, the classics, and art history. He had published four books and twenty-seven scholarly articles on a variety of subjects and was a fellow of the Astronomical, Linnean, and Royal Societies. Amid shopping lists and daily reminders, he filled his pocket diaries with the titles of books to read, complex mathematical formulas, and notations of experiments and experiences.

Talbot’s frustration that day with the camera lucida led him to recollect his experiences ten years earlier with another drafting aid, the camera obscura—a small wooden box with a lens at one end that projected the scene before it onto a piece of frosted glass at the back, where the artist could trace the outlines on thin paper. The camera obscura, too, had left Talbot with unsatisfactory results, but it was not his own feeble drawings that he remembered after a decade. Rather he recalled with pleasure “the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature’s painting which the glass lens of the Camera throws upon the paper in its focus—fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away.” These thoughts in turn prompted Talbot to muse “how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper.” “And why should it not be possible?” he asked himself. Talbot jotted down thoughts about experiments he could conduct at home to see if Nature, through the action of light on material substances, might be brought to draw her own picture.

In January 1834, Talbot returned home to Lacock Abbey, an amalgamation of buildings incorporating the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century remains of a former abbey about eighty-five miles west of London. Within a few months, he began to experiment with the idea that had occurred to him at Lake Como and soon found that a sheet of fine writing paper, coated with salt and brushed with a solution of silver nitrate, darkened in the sun, and that a second coating of salt impeded further darkening or fading. Talbot used this discovery to make precise tracings of botanical specimens: he set a pressed leaf or plant on a piece of sensitized paper, covered it with a sheet of glass, and set it in the sun. Wherever the light struck, the paper darkened, but wherever the plant blocked the light, it remained white. He called his new discovery “the art of photogenic drawing.”

As his chemistry improved, Talbot returned to his original idea of photographic images made in a camera. During the “brilliant summer of 1835,” he took full advantage of the unusually abundant sunshine and placed pieces of sensitized photogenic drawing paper in miniature cameras— “mouse traps,” his wife called them—set around the grounds to record the silhouette of Lacock Abbey’s animated roofline and trees. The pictures, Talbot wrote, “without great stretch of the imagination might be supposed to be the work of some Lilliputian artist.”

Occupied with other activities, Talbot worked little on his invention between the sunny days of 1835 and January 1839, when the stunning news arrived that a Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, had invented a wholly different means of recording camera pictures with dazzling precision on metal plates. Preempted just at the moment when he was beginning to revisit his earlier experiments with an eye toward publication, Talbot scrambled to stake a claim to priority, to produce pictures that might compare favorably with Daguerre’s, and to solve the problems of lengthy exposure times and fugitive prints. Well before Daguerre revealed the details of his process, Talbot presented his own before the Royal Society in January and February 1839. At the time of Talbot’s announcement, his “art of photogenic drawing” was clearly better suited for recording the shadows of plant specimens, lace, or similar flat objects by direct contact—pictures we would now describe as photograms—than for camera images.

Although such photogenic drawings were beautiful as objects and useful as scientific records, Talbot knew that a fast, permanent, and accurate means of producing photographic images in the camera was the true brass ring, and on September 23, 1840, he found a way to seize it. Talbot discovered that an exposure of mere seconds, leaving no visible trace on the chemically treated paper, nonetheless left a latent image that could be brought out with the application of an “exciting liquid” (essentially a solution of gallic acid). This discovery, which Talbot patented in February 1841 as the “calotype” process (from the Greek kalos, meaning beautiful), opened up a whole new world of possible subjects for photography.

Talbot’s early photogenic drawings, such as those in the Bertoloni Album, with their shades of lilac and lavender, remained fugitive, for they were only partially stabilized with a solution of salt. A more permanent means of “fixing” the image with hyposulfite of soda was proposed by Talbot’s friend the eminent scientist Sir John Herschel; “hypo” was adopted by Talbot for most prints beginning in the early 1840s and is still used today as a fixer for black-and-white photographs. With all the pieces of a workable process now in place, Talbot set out to promote his invention at home and abroad. He traveled to Paris in May 1843 to negotiate (unsuccessfully) a licensing agreement for the French rights to his patented calotype process and to give firsthand instruction in its use. At home, he demonstrated the commercial viability of his invention by means of a photographically illustrated book, The Pencil of Nature, published in parts beginning in 1844. In less than a decade, Talbot conceived and brought about a wholly new way of making pictures, perfected the optical and chemical aspects of photography, and learned to use the new medium to make complex images for the botanist, historian, traveler, and artist.

Talbot spent the last twenty-five years of his life developing and perfecting an effective photogravure process. That he should have spent so much time developing a process for printing photographs with ink rather than silver salts is not wholly surprising. Talbot’s early photogenic drawings are so ephemeral that, despite their exceptional beauty, they can never be exhibited or exposed to light without risk of change. Even his far more stable calotypes fixed with hypo were inconsistent in their permanence, many deteriorating in quick order; a reviewer of the 1862 International Exhibition described some photographs as “fading before the eyes of the nations assembled.” Thus, Talbot’s search for a photographic process using permanent printer’s ink was a final step in the refinement of his earlier, still imperfect, invention.