William Henry Fox Talbot (English, 1800-1877), scientist and polymath, was the inventor of photography on paper and the photographic negative. Frustrated by his inability to draw, Talbot conceived of the idea of photography while in Italy in 1833 and realized it in 1834 by coating light sensitive silver salts on paper at his Wiltshire home, Lacock Abbey. Finding that there was insufficient light to affect the salted paper in a camera, he succeeded with direct contact photograms. Where the object, such as a leaf or a piece of lace, in direct contact with a sheet of chemically sensitized paper, did not block the light, the paper darkened, thus producing a negative. He determined that by using this negative in contact with another sheet of sensitized paper he could reverse the tones to make positives. In 1835 Talbot achieved camera images; in January 1839, prompted by Daguerre’s announcement of the daguerreotype and encouraged by his mother who held an important influence over him, he revealed his process to the public under the term photogenic drawing. In 1840 he discovered that chemical development brought out a latent image in his paper negative and patented this as the calotype. The concept of using a negative to make multiple prints on paper defined the central path of photography forward into the digital age. In the 1840s Talbot struggled to establish the unique identity of his calotype process and its value to the graphic arts. His visual legacy testifies to the diversity of his subject matter which encompassed botanical studies, art reproductions, architecture, landscape and portraiture. Lacock Abbey served as an influential focal point for these endeavors and Talbot’s family, friends and staff were his photographic models.
He conceived the lavishly illustrated The Pencil of Nature (1844-1846) as an elegant synopsis of the potential of photography. In it he sketched his imaginative and wide-ranging vision of the new medium and explored its various dimensions. It was a majestic publishing endeavor to promote his invention and secure recognition amongst artists, scientists, and the book-buying public.
In 1843 Talbot supported his former valet, Dutch-born Nicolaas Henneman, to set up the Reading Establishment, the world’s first dedicated photographic printing firm. This is where the salt prints for The Pencil of Nature, Sun Pictures in Scotland, and other projects were made. For various reasons many of these silver-based prints had a tendency to discolor or fade within weeks. This disappointment led Talbot to invent the photogravure process, patented in 1852 and 1858, by which he realized his ambition for the art he had invented, the prophetic vision of an extraordinary man and seminal figure in the history of photography.
The vast majority of Talbot’s negatives and prints are held by National Science and Media Museum in Bradford and the British Library in London, with smaller collections in museums worldwide.
The exhibition William Henry Fox Talbot and the Promise of Photography was held at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, 18 November 2017 – 11 February 2018. The exhibition Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph was held at the Media Space, Science Museum, London, 14 April – 11 September 2016. The exhibition The Pencil of Nature was held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, January – April 1989.
Dan Leers with Larry J. Schaaf. William Henry Fox Talbot and the Promise of Photography (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 2017).
Larry J. Schaaf, The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
The William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonné
The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot