Saturday, April 2, 2011

Talbot, the British inventor of the calotype...3rd in the series of the history of photography

On the other side of the sea from France and Daguerre, a British man was inventing a photographic process called the calotype, which is an early precursor to the modern process of photography. This man was William Henry Fox Talbot, as can be seen above in a portrait by John Moffat from 1864. There's an interesting story in the development and subsequent patent of Talbot's negative/positive calotype. Daguerre, the French contemporary of Talbot who had secured the patent for his daguerrotype process which was secured by the French goverment and was offered "free to the world", actually patented his process in Britain only. This meant that the British would have to pay a license fee to practice the process. It's thought that Daguerre did this so that Talbot's process of calotypes wouldn't compete with the daguerrotype. Talbot's calotype process was much more successful however, and the daguerrotype fell out of use by 1865.

Latticed Window at Lacock Abbey by Talbot, 1835 (the oldest photographic negative in existence)

The calotype process produced a paper negative through the use of chemicals such as silver nitrate, and the negative could be used to produce numerous copies of the image unlike the daquerrotype which could only produce one copy. Because the calotype negative was on paper, it wasn't as sharp as the daguerrotype though. Further improvements on the process such as albumen (egg) glass negatives, ambrotypes, and the collodion glass negative (which required dark-room tents on location!) process developed the popularity of photography further.

The Footman by Talbot (calotype, the earliest photo of a human on paper, 1840)

There is some interesting history of Talbot and his licensing of his patents to professional photographers of the day. In August 1852, The Times published an open letter by Lord Rosse of Birr Castle in Co Offaly (his wife Lady Rosse was an avid amateur photographer!) the President of the Royal Society, and Charles Lock Eastlake, the president of the Royal Academy, who called on Talbot to relieve his patent pressure that was perceived as stifling the development of photography. Talbot waived the license for amateurs but charged professionals from £100-150 a year. And he actively sued people who didn't secure a license or he felt threatened his process by developing something similar such as the collodion process.
There is a museum dedicated to Talbot at the Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. There is a great explanation of the calotype here and you can even experiment on make your own in Photoshop or on paper

Newhaven Fishwives, Scotland by Hill & Adamson 1843-47

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