William Henry Fox Talbot

Posted Friday, 6 April 2007 by Gudmund in Icon of the week, Photography
For the very first photographer presented in our 'Icon of the week' series, it is only fitting that we start at the very beginning – with William Henry Fox Talbot.

Niépce's first permanent photographic image,<br> created in 1827<br><br>
Niépce's first permanent photographic image,
created in 1827

A calotype image by Fox Talbot, created in 1853
A calotype image by Fox Talbot, created in 1853

It would be unfair and inaccurate to describe any one person as 'the inventor of photography' – as is the case with many other technological developments, a number of people were experimenting with related techniques at the time. One of the big challenges that these early pioneers of photography faced was the issue of light sensitivity (or lack thereof) in their materials. It is generally agreed that the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce, who had been experimenting with 'fixing images' since around 1816, created the first permanent photographic image in 1827. The exposure time, however, somewhere between 8 and 20 hours, clearly left a lot to be desired.

Niépce soon teamed up with Louis Daguerre, who was to become Fox Talbot's main competitor in the early development of photography. The two men where aware of each other's work, albeit not in much detail, and they were perfectly aware of the potentially revolutionary significance of their work, so there was a race against time to be the first to present a viable photographic technique to the world.

The main difference between the two processes Daguerre and Fox Talbot were developing was that Daguerre's 'daguerreotype' process fixed a positive image on a metal plate, while Talbot's 'calotype' process produced a negative image on paper. Daguerre officially announced his invention in 1839, and by that time the exposure time had been reduced to a couple of minutes, making it the first photographic process that could be used for portraiture. This was very significant and ensured that the process became popular and widely used for this purpose.

Fox Talbot's 'calotype' process, patented in 1841, had one major advantage over the Daguerreotype: although the image quality of the daguerreotypes was far superior, only the one image existed, and copies could not be made at the time. Talbot's calotype, on the other hand, was a negative/positive process, meaning that an unlimited number of copies could be made from the original negative. The major problem with the calotype process was that the fibres in the paper negative reduced the quality of the positive copies, so the final image was rather fuzzy and poor compared to a daguerreotype. This problem was not fully resolved until fellow Englishman Fredrick Scott Archer announced his 'collodion process' in 1851. This technique used glass rather than paper as a negative base, enabling much sharper copies to be made. This was a major breakthrough and was to form the basis for photography as we've know it until the advent of digital. Competing techniques, such as the Daguerreotype, soon started vanishing from widespread use from this point onwards

Despite his invaluable innovations, Fox Talbot was not universally admired among contemporary photographers: unlike many other photographic innovators, he patented his calotype process and charged a hefty fee from anyone who wanted to use it. Even amateur photographers had to pay for the privilege of using his technique and professional photographers were charged a licence fee of as much as £100-150 ($200-300) per year – which in 1840s money must have seemed an absolutely extortionate amount. In his defence, it should be said that Fox Talbot had spent a small fortune of his own money developing the process, so perhaps the licencing was simply an understandable attempt to break even. Talbot also attempted to charge a license to photographers using the collodium process, arguing that it was based on his patent, but he lost in court when he tried to assert his claim. Disappointed at the outcome, he didn't renew his patent for calotype and photography became free for us all!

Thanks to:

Mark Harden at Masters of Photography
Chronicle Books and John Barnier, editor of Coming into Focus: A Step by Step Guide to Alternative Photographic Printing Processes


» Fox Talbot Museum 
» The Daguerreian Society  
» The Reference Site About Nicéphore Niépce

Next week we will (sadly, I know) not be presenting a new icon of the week, since I will be away, attempting to create some future icons of photography myself. 
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By ThomGolf on Friday, 6 April 2007 4:28 PM
Thank you so much! I have been waiting for these true icons to be presented..... - FINALLY.

Agree with ThomGolf
By leo on Saturday, 7 April 2007 5:57 PM
Nice posting
By Linda Lee Morgan on Wednesday, 2 May 2007 9:20 PM
I am extremely interested in learning this method, following somewhat in the genre of Sally Mann's work. As a matter of fact, in a perfect world I would love to apprentice with her...however, I know not how to contact her directly. Consequently, I am contacting anyone affiliated with the technique in hopes of finding a master that could perhaps assist me in carrying on this dying art. Have you any information on who might be willing to teach this process? I am located in the DC area. Thank you in advance for your time. Linda Lee Morgan

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