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Henry Fox Talbot and the invention of photography (in photos)

William Henry Fox Talbot, by John Moffat, 1864

February 11, 2013 /Photography News/ Born 213 years ago today, Henry Fox Talbot was British inventor and photography pioneer who invented the calotype process, a precursor to photographic processes of the 19th and 20th centuries. Talbot was also a noted photographer who made major contributions to the development of photography as an artistic medium. 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. His work in the 1840s on photo-mechanical reproduction led to the creation of the photoglyphic engraving process, the precursor to photogravure. 

In 1833, while visiting Lake Como in Italy, his lack of success at sketching the scenery prompted him to dream up a new machine with light-sensitive paper that would make the sketches for him automatically. On his return to England, he began work on this project at his home at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.

"Photoglyptic Gravure", cca. 1860
Thomas Wedgwood had already made photograms - silhouettes of leaves and other objects - but these faded quickly. In 1827, Joseph Nicéphore de Niepce had produced pictures on bitumen, and in January 1839, Louis Daguerre displayed his 'Daguerreotypes' - pictures on silver plates - to the French Academy of Sciences. Three weeks later, Fox Talbot reported his 'art of photogenic drawing' to the Royal Society. His process based the prints on paper that had been made light sensitive, rather than bitumen or copper-paper.

Window in the South Gallery of Lacock Abbey made from the oldest photographic negative in existence, August  1835
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.

Miss Horatia Feilding, half sister of W. H. F. Talbot."Calotype", cca. 1842
Talbot spent the last 25 years of his life developing and perfecting an effective photogravure process. His 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.

Fox Talbot was also an eminent mathematician, an astronomer and archaeologist, who translated the cuneiform inscriptions from Nineveh. He died on 11 September 1877.

London Street, Reading. East side, c. 1845. No. 33 (Reading Literary, Scientific and Mechanics' Institution); No. 39 (Lovejoy's Library, bookseller, circulating library, post office, and stationer's); No. 41 (with poster for Reading Races); No. 43 (The Eagle Tavern). A horse and cart waits outside the inn. 1840-1849 : photograph by W. H. Fox Talbot. The original is in the Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library.


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