If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Talbot's Processes - Photographic Processes Series - Chapter 3 of 12

Photography's birth in the 1830s saw Daguerre in France and Talbot in England innovating with silver iodide and silver chloride respectively. Talbot's breakthrough was creating permanent images, introducing the negative/positive process, and showcasing photography's potential in his publication, The Pencil Of Nature.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

This time around the 1830’s is really when photography comes together. Daguerre is in France making images with silver iodide on metal plates and Talbot is working in England making images with silver chloride on paper. Working simultaneously in two different countries not quite knowing about the other. But that changes when you start to have articles in the press. Now it’s public and so a rivalry begins. William Henry Fox Talbot is a gentleman scholar in England living in an old Abbey in the village of Lacock. He was a member of the House of Lords. He was a wealthy individual who had many many interests. Talbot is on his honeymoon in Lake Como in Italy and he’s trying to make drawings with a camera lucida. He’s trying to do pencil sketches and realizes he has no skill whatsoever in drawing. He wants to make pictures within a camera obscura. All he has to do is find the material that he can put in the back of the camera to record the image. Finally when he returns home to Lacock Abbey he starts doing experiments and he is able to produce a photographic image. Talbot is making images by using silver chloride in the production of making what he called photogenic drawings. Which are essentially just coating paper with salt coating paper with silver nitrate and place a fern or object on top of the paper put a piece of glass on top of that and lay it in the sunlight, it will darken. Up to that point it’s not so much different than what Wedgwood did. But Niepce and Wedgwood could not figure out a way to keep the drawings. What Talbot discovers is that if he takes that image and puts it into a stronger solution of salt water all the areas that were not exposed to light all the areas that didn’t turn to metallic silver become less sensitive. They are not removed completely. But he can show them to people in the house. You can see them by candle light. This is the type of camera Talbot used in his earliest experiments with photogenic drawing. Many of them are still around and you can see them as long as you don’t bring them out into too much light. Usually when you see them they’re under a piece of velvet so it feels like this intimate experience of looking at a photograph in its first days. Now photography is so ubiquitous that we probably don’t think about how special, and magical that experience was. Talbot is the first person to make a salted paper print. He actually invents something that’s permanent. It’s basically his photogenic drawing process that has been fixed with hypo. Sodium thiosulfate is the modern term. Its potential for removing silver halide is discovered by Sir John Herschel. Salted paper prints, because of the way they are made where the image material sinks into the paper tend to have a less crisp look to them. There was this sort of dichotomy between the crisp, clean almost three dimensional quality of the daguerreotype and the softer, almost more granulated sensibility of the salted paper print. So that sort of got reduced to information versus artistry in the early years of photography’s history. Talbot improves the photogenic drawing process by switching from silver chloride to silver iodide. The same silver halide that Daguerre uses in his process. The latent image Calotype process that he invents in 1840 allows him to make a little bit of an exposure and then he develops out the invisible image to a visible image using gallic acid. And so now he can put this into a camera and actually do pictures of living human beings. He can then make negatives and after those negatives are fixed with hypo he can then place those on top of a second sheet of sensitive paper expose that to light and now he makes a positive proof. So he has negative and positive. He essentially introduces the negative / positive potential for photography that becomes the standard of photography until the invention of digital photography. The rivalry between Daguerre and Talbot continues today. There are champions of Talbot and champions of Daguerre. Both camps feel that their man invented photography. In fact, it’s all photography just a different type. After Talbot figured out this negative / positive process he wanted to show what photography could do. So his way to do that was to produce a series of publications called the Pencil Of Nature. The Pencil Of Nature contains text explaining Talbot’s process. It contains salted paper prints mostly showing Talbot’s home at Lacock Abbey and each of the photographs is meant to display one of the various uses of photography. Talbot’s showing the reproducibility of the photograph which really became one of the most important aspects of the medium.