Today we will be discussing one of the grand daddy’s of photography: William Henry Fox Talbot. Even though he is one of the most important men in history in regards to the photographic process, I find it quite hard to enthuse myself for his images. The photographic drawings I get, and even the first photo of the latticed window is beautiful in its own regard – but most of the other images leave me only luke-warm. I find it almost as if this man if more concerned with the chemical basics, the technical (im)perfections that he is less focused on creating a compelling image. True, it makes him no less a genius, but unfortunately not so much of the artistic kind.


William Henry Fox Talbot  was born on the 11th of February 1800 as the only child of William Davenport Talbot, of Lacock Abbey, near Chippenham, Wiltshire, and of Lady Elisabeth Fox Strangways, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester. His father died when he was only 5 months old, and his mother re-married in 1804 to Capitan Charles Feilding. It was then that Talbot gained a real father and, soon, two half sisters, Caroline August Feilding and Henrietta Horatia Maria Feilding.

Talbot was educated at Rottingdean, Harrow School and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was awarded the Porson prize in Classics in 1820. From 1822 to 1872, he frequently communicated papers to the Royal Society, many of them on mathematical subjects. At an early period, he had begun his optical researches, which were to have such important results in connection with photography. To the Edinburgh Journal of Science in 1826 he contributed a paper on “Some Experiments on Coloured Flame”; to the Quarterly Journal of Science in 1827 a paper on “Monochromatic Light”; and to the Philosophical Magazine a number of papers on chemical subjects, including one on “Chemical Changes of Colour.”

On 20 December 1832, he married Constance Mundy and almost at the same time, he was elected and joined the parliament until 1834 as the reform candidate for Chippenham. They would have two children together, Ela in 1836 and Rosamond in 1837.

Talbot said he engaged his photographic experiments beginning in early 1834, well before 1839, when Louis Daguerre exhibited his pictures taken by the sun. It was while relaxing at Lake Como in Italy that Talbot tried to draw some pictures with the aid of a camera lucida, but found himself frustrated by not being able to sketch the scenery. Talbot’s imagination turned to the possibility of the light itself drawing the picture upon the paper, by using a camera obscura. By coating ordinary writing paper with alternate washes of table salt and silver nitrate, William Fox Talbot embedded a light-sensitive silver chloride in the fibres of the paper. Placed in the sun under an opaque object such as a leaf, the paper would darken where not defended from light, producing a photographic silhouette. Talbot called the resulting negatives sciagraphs – drawings of shadows.

Talbot recognized the value in producing a negative image at first, because it meant that the picture could be duplicated. When the paper negative was soaked in oil it became transparent, and could then be contact printed onto another identically sensitised paper, a positive. By February 28, 1835 William Fox Talbot had described in a letter the negative-positive system. His paper negative of Lacock Abbey’s window, made in August 1835, survives to this day. He built many small wooden camera obscuras but he did not publicize his work. In 1835 Talbot contemplated writing a report to the Royal Academy of Sciences, but he did not see any reason to make a premature announcement until he had enough time to perfect the process. So, he set aside his photographic work and directed his efforts instead on writing a book called Hermes, or Classical and Antiquarian Research.

After Daguerre’s discovery was announced (without details), Talbot rushed to show his five-year-old pictures at the Royal Institution on 25 January 1839. Within a fortnight, he freely communicated the technical details of his photogenic drawing process to the Royal Society. Daguerre would not reveal the finer details of his process until August. In 1841, Talbot announced his discovery of the calotype, or talbotype, process. This process reflected the work of many predecessors, most notably John Herschel and Thomas Wedgwood. In August 1841, Talbot licensed Henry Collen, the miniature painter (1798–1879) as the first professional calotypist. Talbot’s original contributions included the concept of a negative from which many positive prints can be made (although the terms negative and positive were coined by Herschel), and the use of gallic acid for developing the latent image. In 1842, for his photographic discoveries detailed in his The Pencil of Nature (1844), he received the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society.

The work on the Daguerre process was taking place at the same time as that of Talbot’s work in England on the calotype process. Daguerre’s agent in England applied for a British patent a matter of days before France, having granted Daguerre a pension, declared his invention “free to the world”. Great Britain therefore became the only country where the payment of license fees was required to use the Daguerre process.

In February 1841, Talbot obtained a patent for the calotype process. At first, he was selling individual patent licences for £20 each, but later he lowered the fee to £4 and waived the payment for those who wished to use the process only as amateurs. Professional photographers, however, had to pay up to £300 annually. In a business climate where many patent holders were attacked for enforcing their rights, Talbot’s behaviour was widely criticized, especially after 1851 when Frederick Scott Archer publicized the collodion process. Talbot declared that anyone using Archer’s process would still be liable to get a license for the calotype. In 1843-44, he had set up an establishment in Baker Street, Reading, for the purpose of mass producing salted paper prints from his calotype negatives. The Reading Establishment (as it was known) also produced prints from other calotypist’s negatives and even produced portraits and copy prints at the studio.

One reason Talbot patented the calotype was that he had spent many thousands of pounds on the development of the calotype process over several years. It is also significant that, although the daguerreotype process was supposed to be free to the world, Daguerre secured a British patent on his own process. Talbot’s negative/positive process eventually succeeded as the basis for almost all 19th and 20th century photography. The daguerreotype was rarely used by photographers after 1860 and had died as a commercial process by 1865.

The calotype or talbotype (he used these names interchangeably) was Talbot’s improvement of his earlier photogenic drawing process by the use of a different silver salt (silver iodide instead of silver chloride) and a developing agent (gallic acid and silver nitrate) to bring out a latent image on the exposed paper. This reduced the minimum exposure time in the camera from over an hour to only a minute or two. The translucent calotype negative made it possible to produce as many positive prints as desired by simple contact printing; the daguerreotype was an opaque direct positive that could only be reproduced by copying it with a camera. On the other hand, the calotype, despite waxing of the negative to make the image clearer, still was not pin sharp like the metallic daguerreotype, as the paper fibres degraded the image produced.

The problem was resolved in 1851 (the year of Daguerre’s death) when the wet collodion process enabled glass to be used as a support; the lack of detail often found in calotype negatives was removed, and sharp images, similar in detail to the daguerreotype, were created. The wet collodion negative not only brought about the end of the calotype in commercial use, but also spelled the end of the daguerreotype as a common process for portraiture.

In August 1852, The Times published an open letter by Lord Rosse, the President of the Royal Society, and Charles Lock Eastlake, the president of the Royal Academy, who called on Talbot to relieve his patent pressure that was perceived as stifling the development of photography. In his response, Talbot agreed to waive licensing fees for amateurs, but he continued to pursue professional portrait photographers, having filed several lawsuits.

In 1854, Talbot applied for an extension of the 14-year patent. At that time one of his lawsuits, against a photographer Martin Laroche, was heard by the court. The Talbot v. Laroche case was the pivotal point of the story. Laroche’s side argued that the patent was invalid, as a similar process was invented earlier by Joseph Reade, and that using the collodion process does not infringe the calotype patent anyway, because of significant differences between the two processes. In the verdict, the jury upheld the calotype patent but agreed that Laroche was not infringing upon it by using the collodion process. Disappointed by the outcome, Talbot chose not to extend his patent.

Talbot died in Lacock village near Chippenham, Wiltshire, on the 17th of September 1877 – aged 77, and is buried there along with his wife and children.


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