William Henry Fox Talbot: Inventor of the Negative-Positive Photo Process

William Henry Fox Talbot was on his honeymoon at Lake Como in northern Italy in 1833. He was trying to sketch the beautiful lake and surrounding landscape, but grew increasingly frustrated with his lack of skill in drawing. He used a camera lucida and a camera obscura, two devices that use lenses to project an image onto a sheet of paper to aid in drawing, but he found neither very satisfying.

Out of frustration, he wrote the following quote in his journal.

How lovely it would be if it were possible to make these natural images print permanently and stay fixed on the paper! And why wouldn’t that be possible? I asked myself. —William Henry Fox Talbot

In this quote, Fox Talbot basically says, “I wish these scenes would paint themselves.” And why not? With this, he embarked on a project to try to fix the ephemeral image on paper. Some chemicals have been known to change color or darken when exposed to light. The challenge was to keep them from changing and thus becoming permanent images.

Fox Talbot was the man for the job. He was a scientist, mathematician, botanist, etymologist and deputy. He was well educated, well resourced and well connected with the English elite. He was also humble and not at all self-promoting. For this reason, much of his contributions to photography, publishing, and scientific discovery are not often appreciated or particularly well documented.

William Henry Fox Talbot in 1864.

The first photographs

Upon returning home to Lacock Abbey in south-west England near the city of Bath, Fox Talbot began experimenting with coating paper with nitrates of silver and chlorides of silver by noting how they changed when exposed to light. He was not alone in this experiment.

In France, Nicéphore Niepce, Louis Daguerre and Hippolyte Bayard carried out similar experiments. In the United States, Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph had experimented with silver nitrate as early as 1810. Others in England, including Sir Humphry Davy and Thomas Wedgwood, also conducted similar experiments. Either way, the challenge was not to make an image appear on paper, but to keep it from darkening and blackening.

In the fall of 1834, Fox Talbot had considerable success in fixing the picture and sending paper prints to friends. Some were images of objects placed on sensitized paper, but he soon began using small wooden boxes with a lens to capture natural scenes. His wife called them “Mousetraps”, partly because they looked like mousetraps, but also because he made them sit in various places to catch light and create images.

One of the first real photographs was of the window of Lacock Abbey.

The South Gallery window of Lacock Abbey, a photo taken from the oldest surviving photographic negative. August 1835. Photo by William Fox Talbot.

This is the current exterior view of the Lacock Abbey window:

Lacock Abbey

The window of Lacock Abbey captured by William Henry Fox Talbot in one of the first true photographs ever made.

The negative-positive process

The images were negatives, so they had to be contact printed onto another piece of paper to create a positive image. Therefore, they were quite soft and fuzzy. He finally figured out how to dip the paper negative in an oily solution to make it more transparent and give a sharper, more distinct image.

This two-step process was initially thought to be a drawback, but he soon realized that this negative-to-positive process allowed multiple copies of the same image to be made. This negative-to-positive process would become the most common process for making photographs over the next 160 years.

Daguerreotype

Meanwhile, in France, Louis Daguerre was working on a similar idea but with a totally different process. In Daguerre’s process, a sheet of copper is coated with a thin layer of silver, highly polished, and then sensitized with iodine and bromine vapors. After being exposed in a camera, the metal sheets were treated with heated mercury vapor.

When he presented his photographs at the joint meeting of the French Academy of Scientists in August 1839, the world was amazed and amazed. Daguerreotype studios immediately began to appear when Daguerre sold cameras, supplies, and lessons to new professional photographers. The French government gave Daguerre a lifetime pension in return for public ownership of the patent.

The mood in England was quite different. Scientific inventions were generally left to the wealthy class who could afford to work on their own without financial assistance. Moreover, patents were generally frowned upon and seen as greedy attempts to make money from ideas that should belong to everyone. For this reason Fox Talbot was generally ignored by the English government and his contributions were rarely recognized at the time.

Nelson’s Column under construction in London’s Trafalgar Square in 1844. Photo by William Henry Fox Talbot.

Further development

Daguerre’s announcement prompted Fox Talbot to get back to work. Although Daguerre’s images were crisp and clear, each image was unique, with no possibility of making multiple copies.

In 1841, Fox Talbot patented his negative/positive process under the name “Calotype”. It was then able to sell licenses in England, France and America, sometimes marketed as Talbotype. Ultimately, however, Talbot’s efforts to maintain patent control over the negative/positive process failed, despite lengthy legal proceedings. Over time, the merits of the negative/positive process and being able to print on paper became more evident; Talbot’s processes have become increasingly important over the years.

Fox Talbot also began hand-tinting paper prints to make color photographs, invented the halftone printing process, and published the first illustrated book of photographs, nature’s pencil.

Who was first?

Who actually made the first photograph is still open to dispute. Presumably the French believe it was Daguerre and the English chose to believe it was Fox Talbot. The Fox Talbot Museum at Lacock Abbey and the Niepce Museum at Niepce’s House in the commune of Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France, both proudly claim to be the home of early photography.

Fox Talbot Museum
A view inside the Fox Talbot Museum at Lacock Abbey.
House Museum of Nicéphore Niépce in France.

The first photograph could just as well have been attributed to Morse or several others, but most people would agree that the direct line to modern photography and the processes to today’s digital imaging goes back to William Henry Fox Talbot. He was the first to coat paper and make a permanent duplicable image on paper that can be reproduced in unlimited quantities.


For more, an excellent book on the life and impact of William Henry Fox Talbot, and a resource used for this article, is Fox Talbot and the invention of photography by Gail Buckland.


Picture credits: All Modern Photography by Jim Mathis

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