Photography has revolutionised culture and communication from its beginnings up to the present day. With its invention in the 1830s, accurate and trustworthy visual records from across the world became available to a wide public for the first time, and over the following decades photography increasingly dominated the graphic media.
The British inventor of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877), produced his first ‘photogenic drawings’ in 1834 and in the following year made his first camera negative.
In 1833, frustrated by his own lack of skill as a draftsman, Talbot began experimenting with the possibility of creating accurate images of the world through mechanical and chemical means. By 1835 he had produced his first camera negative, and soon realised that a positive image could subsequently be obtained by further printing. These investigations were put to one side until 1839, when he was shocked to learn that the French painter Louis Daguerre had succeeded in creating the photographic process which became known as the daguerreotype.
Talbot immediately made his own earlier researches public and in the course of the following year refined them to produce in 1840 what became known as the calotype – from the Greek kalos or beautiful – a process which produced a negative through the development of a ‘latent’ or invisible image. In the few years during which he was directly involved with photography, Talbot produced some masterly photographic images using the calotype process. This particularly striking view was made at Talbot’s family home at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.
By exposing the calotype negative produced in the camera, in contact with a further sheet of sensitised paper, a positive image was produced, and variants of Talbot’s negative-positive process were to dominate photography up to the digital age. The negative has been waxed after processing to increase the translucency of the paper, but the fibres of the original paper can still be seen in the image and these, alongside the soft and delicate tones, are characteristic of the process. Although Talbot had quickly recognised the expressive potential of the new medium, this lack of sharp definition (particularly in contrast to the competing daguerreotype process) was often criticised by the wider public. Despite patenting the process, Talbot never achieved major commercial success with the calotype, although today his work is seen as one of photography’s major artistic – as well as scientific – achievements.