William Henry Fox Talbot


He was also a frustrated artist, in the mid 1800s (1800–1877 to be exact). He was a  graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and when his photo discoveries started he had  recently been elected as a Liberal member of Parliament in the House of Commons. He like many of the other inventors of this  time was a true polymath. He did mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and botany, philosophy, philology, Egyptology, AND art history.

His motivation was that his camera lucida never let him accurately capture the world. It wasn’t  his own feeble drawings, 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.”  He wanted to know how to make these natural images imprint THEMSELVES onto paper. Forever. He wanted to know why it wasn’t possible.

In early 1834 he began to experiment with the idea that had occurred to him, he 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.” (think about the old cyanotype)

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.

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.

On September 23, 1840, he found a way. He 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, was called 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 are so ephemeral that, despite their exceptional beauty, they can never be exhibited or exposed to light without risk of change.

Remember he called the work “the pencil of nature”






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