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Masters of Photography


William Fox Talbot 1800 - 1877


Englishman, who invented the first usable negative/ positive photographic process, called the calotype. Talbot not only succeeded and developed, but he was also able to fix the image produced by the action of light and print it. News broke through from across the channel of a similar invention by a Frenchman named Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre. Talbot's hopes of being the first to develop a viable photographic process were crashed. Like Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, Talbot wanted to make light "draw pictures". Having no talent for drawing, Talbot longed to preserve a permanent image of what he saw during his travels in Italy. He used Wollaston's camera lucida only to be disappointed repeatedly when the pencil left on the paper traces that had nothing in common with the observed image. The situation only repeated itself when Talbot tried to capture the splendour and pure beauty of the shore of Lake Como, where some years earlier he had used the camera obscura to copy an image.


But Talbot wanted to capture and have an image imprinted on paper so that he wouldn't have to trace the contours with his untrained hand, but could preserve the genuine image exactly. On his return back to England in 1834, Talbot started experimenting with light chemicals, exposing tree leaves, flowers, lace, and other flat objects of intricate shape, but the results from the images were not true, sharp images of the reality he was trying to achieve. Once, Talbot started experimenting with silver iodide and found by chance that it met his requirements. The paper was first treated with a solution of silver iodide and then potassium iodide, washed in distilled water, and then dried. After exposure, the sensitized paper produced a latent image which was developed in a solution of silver nitrate and gallic acid. This, in turn, produced the negative which when fixed with sodium thiosulphate had been discovered in 1819 to be a solvent of silver halides which was recommended to him for this purpose by his friend J.F.W. Herschel, the astronomer. Throughout 1835 Talbot continued his experiments and managed to obtain papers of such high light sensitivity, that he was able to reduce the exposure time to only six minutes, under clear skies. The announcement of the Daguerreotype had seen not much progress with Talbots experiments. However, the possibility of being able to fix the light-produced images using a direct positive method made him follow Daguerre's announcement reporting the results of his work to the Royal Society in London and to the Académie des Sciences in Paris on January 31, 1839.


Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre's process became an immediate success and was widely adopted. Talbot's method, which was the basis of the modern negative-positive photographic process, was not recognised at the time. As no one realized its great advantage, that of the possibility of producing lots of copies. Talbot had no other alternative but to have his process patented, describing it in detail in a report published on June 10, 1841. To document the early days of the new art, in 1844 Talbot published a book titled "The Pencil of Nature" the first ever book illustrated with original photographs. The title "Sun Pictures of Scotland" was published a year later. In 1849, Talbot had a patent issued for his prototype on porcelain. Talbot kept making photograms of insects and plants, he even experimented with macro and infra photography and even won over French photographer Hippolyte Bayard to his calotype method and was named an honorary member of the Royal Photographic Society in 1873. Talbot remained obsessed with photographic inventions until his death.

        William Fox Talbot


                       By Eugene Struthers

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