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William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877)William Henry Fox Talbot

One of Photography's Earliest Forefathers to the Modern Craft

Biography: Philosopher, classicist, Egyptologist, mathematician, philologist, transcriber and translator of Syrian and Chaldean cuneiform texts, physicist, and photographer.
The work that he did between 1834 and 1850 established in principle and practise the foundation of modern photography; the basis of the process that is used today.

All texts and images printed in books, magazines, newspapers and journals or on posters are transformed and translated through the negative/positive photographic process, whether or not finally printed lithographically or by photogravure.

In addition, all printed circuit boards found in modern computers are miniaturised by photographic reduction and their production uses a process known as photo-polymerisation to etch all the minute tracks and contacts that form the basic motherboards at the heart of all digital electronic systems.

The origin of photo-polymerisation can be seen in the early researches of Talbot. Between 1845 and 1860, he discovered the unique property of potassium dichromate to directly harden colloidal gelatine in proportion to the amount of light to which it is exposed.

The French and British may disagree over exactly when photography was invented: Joseph Nicéphore Niepce (1765-1833) executed the first recognisable image formed by a camera obscura, a view from a window near Chalon-sur-Saône, with an exposure of some eight to ten hours in 1826. Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1789 -1851) made his first Daguerreotype in 1837 using a polished silver-plated copper plate, sensitised with vapourised iodine and developed with the fumes of mercury.

Meanwhile, the idea of photography came to William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) whilst on holiday at Lake Como in Italy, using the Camera obscura and the Camera Lucida as aids to drawing.

Talbot reflected: ‘on the immutable beauty of the pictures of nature's painting which the glass lens of the camera throws on the paper in its focus...fairy pictures, creations of a moment and destined as rapidly to fade away.

‘It was during these thoughts that the idea occurred to me - how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper.’

In Britain, Talbot made the earliest known surviving photographic negative on paper in the late summer of 1835, a small photogenic drawing of the oriel window in the south gallery of his home, Lacock Abbey: this rare item is now in the photographic collection of the Science Museum at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television at Bradford.

Before this he had been experimenting with photogenic drawings: by coating drawing paper with salt solution and after it dried, adding a solution of silver nitrate, and by placing a leaf, or fern, or a piece of lace, on the paper's surface and exposing it to the sun, he obtained an image.

Talbot's findings were read to a meeting of the Royal Society on 31 January 1839 in his paper:

‘An Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing or the process by which natural objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the artist's pencil.’

This was one of the first official announcements of the birth of photography. Talbot's photographic experiments culminated in his greatest achievement when he made the crucial discovery: the development of the latent negative photographic image.

As often happens, the breakthrough occurred at the point of despair. He discovered that paper treated with a substratum of silver iodide and washed in gallic acid in conjunction with silver nitrate and acetic acid would bring out the latent image.

On 23 September 1840, with elation and wonder, he watched a picture gradually appearing on a blank sheet of paper.

He found he could even revive some of his earlier, faded images and named this new process the Calotype, derived from the Greek word 'kalos' meaning beautiful.

Talbot's contribution is best summed up in his own modest statement:

‘...I do not profess to have perfected an art but to have commenced one, the limits of which it is not possible at present exactly to ascertain. I only claim to have based this art on a secure foundation.

‘It will be for a more skilled hand than mine to rear the superstructure.’

More on William Henry Fox Talbot:

Fox Talbot Museum of Photography
'Home of Talbot's work.

Steven R. Loomis - Talbot
Exhaustive Biography on the life of Willam Talbot.

William Henry Fox Talbot
Wonderful Exhibition of Several of Talbot's Photographs.

A History of Photography
etailed Biography on the life of William Talbot.

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