William Henry Fox Talbot

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William Henry Fox Talbot (1844)

William Henry Fox Talbot (* 11. February 1800 in Melbury , County of Dorset , England ; † 17th September 1877 in Lacock Abbey, County Wiltshire , England) was a British photography pioneer.

Talbot was a member of the English upper class, well educated and successful in various fields of the natural sciences and humanities. He achieved his greatest, sustainable achievement in the field of photography . Here he developed the principle of the negative-positive process , which made it possible to reproduce a photographic image by making prints from the negative. It became the basis of all essential photographic processes from around 1860 - before that, the daguerreotype , created at the same time as Talbot's discoveries, dominated - until the widespread use of digital photography in the 1990s.


Miss Horatia Feilding, half-sister Talbot, early calotype (around 1842)

William Henry Fox Talbot was the only child of William Davenport Talbot at Lacock Abbey , a stately home east of Bath , and Elisabeth Theresa, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester. He was only five months old when his father died deeply in debt. So mother and son lived in very humble conditions for several years. In 1804 Lady Elisabeth married the later Rear Admiral Charles Feilding. The financial circumstances now allowed Lacock Abbey to be restored and used as a residence. The young Talbot had two half-sisters. He grew up in an affluent and influential environment. His mother had extensive social connections through her origins, one uncle was a career diplomat , his half-sister Caroline became a lady-in-waiting at the royal court, his cousin Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot was considered by contemporaries as the “richest commoner” in the whole of Great Britain .

The family went on educational trips to the European continent that were customary at the time, which resulted in useful personal contacts for Talbot, but also initial impetus for his later work in the field of photography. While the other members of the tour group in Italy were more or less familiar with making sketches of the sights, Talbot saw himself unable to come up with anything useful, even though he had used a " camera lucida " as a drawing aid. He later recalled that it was then that he began “to reflect on the inimitable beauty of the pictures, painted by nature, which are thrown through the glass lens of the camera onto the paper in their focus ... I pursued the idea ... how delightful it would be ... to make these natural images durable and to hold them on paper ”.

Talbot was an excellent student. He initially received lessons from his mother, a highly intelligent, educated woman who spoke several languages ​​and expected great things from her son. Until her death in 1846, she had a great influence on Talbot and motivated him to make new efforts. Since 1811 he attended the renowned Harrow School in north-west London and studied at Trinity College in Cambridge since 1817 . In 1825 he finished his studies in classical literature and mathematics as a " Master of Arts" (MA).

In 1824 Talbot happened to meet the British astronomer John Herschel in Munich . That was the basis of a friendship and cooperation, which probably contributed significantly to Talbot's intensive study of light and optical phenomena. Herschel introduced him to David Brewster in 1826 , an eminent Scottish physicist who also researched light. Brewster showed great interest in Talbot's work, published his article in his scientific journal and remained on friendly terms with him for life. On December 20, 1832, Talbot married Constance Mundy from Derbyshire. Almost at the same time he was elected to parliament as a candidate for the Whigs (the reform party). As a politician he was not particularly involved; he attended the meetings regularly, but rarely spoke.

In his life, which was longer than average for the time, and was busy until the end, Talbot corresponded with over 1,100 scientists, politicians and private individuals - 8,000 letters addressed to him and 2,000 letters from his hand have been preserved; Already at the age of eight he had urgently asked his stepfather “to tell Mama and everyone else I write to to keep my letters and not to burn them.” Talbot died after a long illness on September 17, 1877 in his study in Lacock Abbey and was buried in Lacock.

The photographic inventions

Shadow drawing, cliché-verre, photogenic drawing

In the years after 1834, Talbot made the discoveries that secured him a place in the history of photography. During the recess in parliament in October 1833, he stayed with his wife and two sisters on Lake Como . Again he failed in his attempts to reproduce the beauties of the surroundings with the pencil, this time with the help of a “ camera lucida ”: “When the eye detached itself from the prism - in which everything had looked beautiful - I found that the faithless pencil had left only sad marks on the paper ”. It was not until the spring of 1834 that he found time at Lacock Abbey to devote himself to his particular problem. He prepared normal writing paper with various solutions of table salt and silver nitrate and made it light-sensitive in this way, placed opaque objects on it and exposed it to the sun. The exposed areas turned dark, the rest remained light. He called the resulting photograms sciagraphs (shadow drawings ).

The famous bay window at Lacock Abbey, 1835

During a stay in Geneva in the autumn of 1834, Talbot continued his experiments. His papers were not yet sensitive to light enough to be used in a camera . He therefore asked an artist friend of mine to scratch a drawing in a light-tight coated glass plate, copied this negative several times onto his light-sensitive sheets and thus established a graphic technique that was later called cliché-verre . In the summer of 1835, Talbot experimented with various chemicals to develop paper coatings suitable for use in a camera. It became clear to him that he could copy the negatives he received as often as desired onto light-sensitive paper in order to get images with the correct tonal value. All over his property he placed test cameras for long exposure times - roughly crafted boxes, only five to eight centimeters tall, which his wife Constance called "mousetraps". The earliest surviving paper negative is from August 1835, a small photo of the bay window at Lacock Abbey. Only his family knew of his discoveries at this point; it seemed too early to publish them.

In the next three years Talbot pursued other scientific projects, so he wrote a book on antiquity ("Hermes, or Classical and Antiquarian Research"). It was not until November 1838 that he began again with photographic experiments and calmly prepared to go public with them. In January 1839 the news arrived from Paris that Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre had succeeded in preserving the images of the camera obscura . Details were not yet known, but Talbot now had to fear for his invention to be recognized. He hastily tried to present his method publicly, although it was not yet very effective. His work "Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing ..." ("A report on the art of photogenic drawing or the process by which natural objects depict themselves without the help of an artist's pen") was published on January 31, 1839 read in front of the “ Royal Society ”, three weeks later Talbot himself explained his way of working there. The technology now had a new name: photogenic drawing.

Seven months later it became clear that Daguerre was using a completely different procedure. The question of priority in the invention of photography seemed decided. Daguerre was able to show some very impressive results and was emphatically supported by the French government and the public in his country; the passing on of the invention was regarded as a gift from France to the world. Talbot, on the other hand, received no official support, and the Royal Society even refused to include his work on photography in their regular publications.

The calotype

Plate XIV from "The Pencil of Nature", 1844
Cover of "The Pencil of Nature", circa 1844

His friends David Brewster and John Herschel induced Talbot to continue working intensively despite the frustrating experience. Herschel made his own experiments and discovered a way of preventing the silver salts used from reacting further after they had developed - he called the process “ fixing ”, and both Talbot and Daguerre used it. Herschel also coined the terms "photography", "positive" and "negative" for Talbot's work. The summer of 1840 was unusually long and sunny by English standards, so Talbot made significant progress. Previously, he needed exposure times of around one hour for a usable paper negative. Now he found out that even a short exposure of the order of one to three minutes caused a sufficient, if initially invisible, change in his papers. With the help of a chemical developer, he was able to turn it into a full-fledged negative. The picture was taken on iodized silver paper, developed in gallic acid and silver nitrate, fixed in sodium thiosulphate , made transparent by bathing in wax and finally copied to positive again on iodized silver paper. Talbot called this improved method "Calotype Photogenic Drawing", it became known as a calotype (kalos = ancient Greek "beautiful") or talbotype.

On February 8, 1841, Talbot patented his process - an unfortunate decision. In doing so, he partially blocked the spread and further development of his invention himself and was exposed to repeated hostility. However, he waived outside of England to enforce his patent claims. Since Daguerre also secured the patent rights for his method in England, English photographers had to acquire licenses for one or the other method. It can therefore not be said that Talbot facilitated the spread of the daguerreotype by patenting his process . At that time, this was still considered the more attractive method: with its illustrations on prepared copper plates, it provided only relatively heavy and sensitive unique items, but these were straightforward and as sharp, detailed positives. Calotypes, on the other hand, were light and robust, but exhibited a slightly grainy blurring due to the structure of the papers used and could only be obtained after the intermediate step via a negative process; however, this approach ultimately proved to be the superior technique, after improvements during the decades that followed and after the inhibitory bans were lifted.

First, however, Talbot experienced new disappointments. He financed his former servant Nicolaas Henneman to set up a commercial photographic workshop in Reading , between Lacock and London; there, at the end of 1843, the mass production of photo prints began to replace copper engravings and lithographs . Talbot himself had been publishing his book “Pencil of Nature” since June 1844, illustrated with 24 original prints each and designed to demonstrate the new technology. The work received positive reviews, but hardly sold. With mass production, the initially unsolvable problem of guaranteeing uniform quality arose: each sheet had to be coated by hand, exposed to inconsistent sunlight and treated with aqueous solutions that were not always free of undesirable additives. Often prints faded - occasions for painters and draughtsmen to ridicule the new method in which they saw a threat to their professional existence. After four years, Henneman's studio had to close due to financial failure.

Additional difficulties arose from the extensive patent on the calotype method, which Talbot defended offensively. This was done for reasons of principle, because his mother and Brewster had urged him to do so, but also to protect Henneman's studio in Reading from competition. Talbot's attitude has been heavily criticized in the press. It was said to be incomprehensible that such a wealthy man would charge any interested party considerable sums to use his method. When Frederick Scott Archer introduced the so-called wet collodion process in 1851 , an improved negative / positive process on a chemically different basis, Talbot complained against it and lost. In 1854 the court certified that he was the inventor of photography, but also ruled that the more recent processes had not infringed his patent rights. The disappointing court verdict, his loss of reputation in public opinion and simultaneous health problems meant that Talbot stopped all photochemical experiments and did not take any more photos. In summary of his work in this field, he wrote: I do not claim to have brought an art to perfection, but I have started something whose limits cannot yet be precisely determined. I claim to have put this art on a secure basis .

Further scientific achievements

Talbot's Age of Age, 1864

Talbot's scientific interests and skills were extraordinarily diverse. In this respect he combined the position of the gifted amateur, as it was common in the 18th century, with the growing demands for professionalism of the 19th century. He was a member of the " Royal Astronomical Society " and the "Royal Society", honorary doctorates from the University of Edinburgh , received twelve patents in various fields, published eight books and over a hundred magazine articles. In several areas of knowledge his name is linked to certain research results - in mathematics with the “Talbot's curve”, in physics with the “ Talbot effect ” and the “ Talbot ” (a name for the unit of light intensity), in psychology with “ TalbotsLaw ”, in botany with two species that are named after him and in astronomy with the lunar crater Talbot , which was named after him in 1976, and the asteroid (3151) Talbot . The Talbot Glacier in Antarctica was also named after him.

In mathematics he achieved important results in the field of elliptic integrals and in number theory , which built on the work of Euler , Legendre , Jacobi and Abel . In 1831 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his mathematical work. In 1858 he became an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh .

After his health recovered in the 1850s, Talbot sought a new way of reliably reproducing photographs. He had realized that the photochemical process with silver salts would never lead to really satisfactory results. The result of his new investigations was a type of engraving from which conventional prints could be made. By 1858 he succeeded in developing and testing a process in Edinburgh, a center of the printing industry, which he called "photoglyph engraving". He received a patent for this direct forerunner of modern photo engraving and a medal at the International Exhibition in London in 1862.

From the early 1850s, Talbot began to be interested in ancient oriental cuneiform script , especially the Assyro-Babylonian variant of the script. First he studied the works of Henry Creswicke Rawlinson and Edward Hincks , before he began to investigate the structure of script himself. The British Library's manuscript collection still contains more than 100 notebooks by Talbot in which he attempts to understand the reading and structure of cuneiform characters. Frustrated by the general skepticism about the possibility of deciphering, Talbot turned to Henry Burgess , editor of the Journal of Sacred Literature , in October 1855 , complaining that the importance of deciphering was not universally recognized. Finally, Talbot himself suggested that the Royal Asiatic Society organize a parallel translation in which the same cuneiform text passage should be translated independently by different scholars. If there were matches, this would prove that the cuneiform script had been successfully deciphered. In 1857 a parallel translation of an inscription by Tiglat-Pilesar took place. Rawlinson, Hincks, Jules Oppert and Talbot took part; their translations differed greatly from one another in some cases, but the parallels were too strong to further doubt the successful deciphering of the cuneiform script.



  • Nele Diekmann: Talbot's Tools: Notebooks as a think tank for a Victorian cuneiform researcher . In: Berlin contributions to the Middle East , Volume 25. PeWe-Verlag, Gladbeck 2017. ISBN 978-3-935012-21-8
  • Vered Maimon: Singular Images, Failed Copies. William Henry Fox Talbot and the Early Photograph . University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2015. ISBN 978-0-8166-9472-3
  • Steffen Siegel (ed.): New light. Daguerre, Talbot and the publication of photography in 1839 . Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munich 2014. ISBN 978-3-7705-5736-3
  • Geoffrey Batchen: William Henry Fox Talbot . Phaidon, London 2008. ISBN 978-0-7148-4198-4
  • Roberto Signorini: All origini del fotografico. Lettura di The Pencil of Nature (1844-46) di William Henry Fox Talbot . Clueb, Bologna / Pistoia 2007. ISBN 978-88-491-2740-9
  • Ronald Berg: The icon of the real. For the determination of photography in the work of Talbot, Benjamin and Barthes . Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munich 2001. ISBN 3-7705-3553-7
  • Larry J. Schaaf: The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot . Princeton University Press, Princeton / Oxford 2000.
  • Larry J. Schaaf: Out of the Shadows. Herschel, Talbot, & the Invention of Photography , Yale University Press, New Haven / London 1992.
  • Michael Weaver (ed.): Henry Fox Talbot. Selected Texts and Bibliography . Clio Press, Oxford 1992.
  • Hubertus von Amelunxen : The canceled time. The invention of photography by William Henry Fox Talbot . Nishen, Berlin 1988.
  • Gail Buckland: Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography . Scolar Press, London 1980.
  • HJP Arnold: William Henry Fox Talbot. Pioneer of Photography and Man of Science . Hutchinson Benham Ltd., London 1977.

Web links

Commons : William Henry Fox Talbot  - Collection of Pictures, Videos and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. a b The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot Project at the University of Glasgow ( Memento of the original from June 16, 2005 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.foxtalbot.arts.gla.ac.uk
  2. Introduction to “The Pencil of Nature”, 1844
  3. Jens Jäger: Photography: Images of the Modern Age . Introduction to historical image research. Tübingen 2000. p. 41 f.
  4. ^ Michel Frizot: 1839-1840 - Photographic Discoveries . In: Michel Frizot (ed.): New history of photography . Cologne 1998. pp. 23-32. Here p. 24
  5. ^ William Henry Fox Talbot: The Pencil of Nature . Publisher: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, London 1844
  6. history
  7. ^ Fellows Directory. Biographical Index: Former RSE Fellows 1783–2002. (PDF file) Royal Society of Edinburgh, accessed April 15, 2020 .
  8. ^ Nele Diekmann: Talbot's Tools . S. 26 .
  9. Talbot Correspondence Project: TALBOT William Henry Fox to BURGESS Henry. Retrieved April 24, 2017 .