William Henry Fox Talbot

William Henry Fox Talbot



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 deeply interested and knowledgeable in a variety of subjects: botany, art, biblical, astronomy, and ancient language. Talbot 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. He lived his adult life at this family estate, Lacock Abby, originally built in 1232.

Talbot’s interest in drawing but lack of draftsmanship led him to experiment with capturing and securing an image. In 1835 Talbot had successfully made a photograph of his home, Lacock Abby, which he referred to as “the first instance on record of a house painting it’s own portrait”. He was unaware of Daguerre’s photographic progress in France, and did not publish a description of the process until after the announcement by the French Government of the daguerreotype, January 6, 1839.

In 1841 Talbot applied for a patent on his “Calotype Process”. To produce a negative, the paper was first washed in nitrate of silver then with potassium iodide, forming silver iodide. Before exposure the paper was coated with a compound of acetic aced with silver nitrate and gallic acid, forming gallo silver nitrate. The paper was rinsed and dried before exposure in the camera. After exposure the paper was again washed with the gallo silver nitrate, then a hot solution of hypo was used as a fixative. A positive print could now be made on paper treated with silver chloride. Thus, Talbot became the creator of negative-positive photography. The first recorded paper photograph is an image of Lacock Abby by Talbot in 1839; it may be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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.

At the time of his death, Talbot was writing an appendix for the English translation of the French edition of The History and Handbook of Photography. William Henry Fox Talbot died September 17, 1877 at Lacock Abby in Wilshire, England.

Talbot gave the world the negative-positive system of photography, and perhaps his greatest gift, the vision of photography’s place in the world of art. He was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum along with Joseph Nicephore Niepce and Louis Jacques Mande-Daguerre at the inception of the Hall of Fame in 1966.

By Vi Whitmire For IPHF


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