William Fox Talbot (1880-1877)

A true “gentleman scientist” of the Victorian period, Talbot combined his knowledge of chemistry, mathematics, and optics, with his interest in art, botany, and classics to invent the paper-based photography that dominated the field for most of the 19th and 20th centuries.

William Henry Fox Talbot. photograph by John Moffat – May 1864

Image source: http://www.edinphoto.org.uk/1_P/1_photographers_talbot_smm_photos_moffat.htm

The Father of Photography

William Henry Fox Talbot is the father of the negative-positive photographic process, as it is practiced today. Talbot was born in Melway; Dorsey, England in 1800 to a wealthy well established family. He was educated at Harrow and Cambridge University; he was an accomplished mathematician involved in the research of light and optics; he invented the polarizing microscope. He was also politically active and a Member of Parliament.

Info source: https://cmoa.org/exhibition/talbot/

The Pencil of Nature

Talbot published the first book illustrated with photographs in 1844. The book, titled The Pencil of Nature, contains 24 photographs of genre scenes of everyday life and a text of predictions and ambitions for the art of photography. The Pencil of Nature was the precursor of the beautiful coffee table books enjoyed today; there are fifteen copies in existence, two may be found in the museum at Lacock Abby.

The pencil of nature by Talbot, 1884

Image source: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/32687/william-henry-fox-talbot-the-pencil-of-nature-by-h-fox-talbot-british-1844/?dz=0.5000,0.6199,0.45

Info source:  http://iphf.org/inductees/william-henry-fox-talbot/


Light Sensitive Paper

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.

“how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper.” “And why should it not be possible?”

one of the first photographic experiments of William Fox Talbot

Image source: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/346847608788325080/

In January 1834, Talbot began to experiment with the idea that had occurred to him at Lake Como and soon 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.” Three weeks later, Fox Talbot reported his invention to the Royal Society.

Info source: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm

The Calotype

In January 1839 a stunning news arrived that a Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, had invented a wholly different means of recording camera pictures with dazzling precision on metal plates.  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. Talbot knew that a fast, permanent, and accurate means of producing photographic images in the camera was the true brass ring, and on September 23, 1840, he found a way to seize it. 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.

A William Fox Talbot photo’s with his negative

Image source: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/517562182153542435/

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.

Talbot in his garden experimenting on his new invention, the calotype

Image source: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23030683-200-william-henry-fox-talbot-and-the-birth-of-the-photograph/

Info source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/fox_talbot_william_henry.shtml

Spectroscopic and Optical Investigations

Talbot was one of the earliest researchers into the field of spectral analysis. He showed that the spectrum of each of the chemical elements was unique and that it was possible to identify the chemical elements from their spectra. Such analysis was to become important in examining the light from distant stars, and hence inferring their atomic composition. He also investigated the polarization of light using tourmaline crystals and iceland spar or calcite crystals, and pioneered the design and use of the polarizing microscope, now widely used by geologists for examining thin rock sections to identify minerals within them.

photogram of a leaf with the calotype process

Image source: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/362258363749552954/

Talbot allowed free use of the calotype process for scientific applications, and he himself published the first known photomicrograph of a mineral crystal. Another photomicrograph shows insect wings as seen in the “solar microscope” he and others developed for projecting images onto a large screen of tiny objects using sunlight as light source. The large projections could then be photographed by exposure to sensitized paper. He studied the diffraction of light using gratings and discovered a new phenomenon, now known as the Talbot effect.

He was aware that the visible spectrum comprised a very small part of what we now know as electromagnetic radiation, and that powerful and invisible light beyond the violet was capable of inducing chemical effects, a type of radiation we now call ultra-violet radiation.

Info source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Fox_Talbot