Let us pay homage to one of photography’s most important figures, William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the calotype, who celebrates his 214th birth anniversary today.
William Henry Fox Talbot was born to a privileged family on February 11, 1800 in Dorset, England. He graduated from the prestigious Trinity College in Cambridge in 1821, and for about 50 years beginning in 1822 had communicated papers mostly of mathematical subjects to the Royal Society. Aside from these, Talbot had also penned manuscripts based on his optical researches, which were published in different scientific journals and tackled subjects like “Some Experiments on Coloured Flame,” “Monochromatic Light,” and “Chemical Changes of Color,” to name a few. Talbot was a member of the parliament, a true man of science who worked in the fields of chemistry, astronomy, and botany, and even dabbled in philosophy and history.
It seems that Talbot first thought of creating a photographic machine in 1833, while on his honeymoon at Italy’s Lake Como, after he became frustrated with his inability to sketch the scenery before him. By the following year, Talbot had already started to work on this project.
In 1835, Talbot made a significant progress with his work as he created his first successful camera photographs with paper “sensitized” in silver chloride and darkened as it is exposed to light – in short, a printing-out process. In 1840, he developed this further by working on a developing-out process that would be known as the calotype. The calotype, sometimes called the talbotype, is a process in which a faint, almost invisible image would be first produced on the paper inside the camera. It would then be taken out to be chemically developed to come up with the full image. While his earlier process required up to over an hour exposure, the calotype only needed a minute or two in bright sunlight. For his discoveries relating to photography, the Royal Society awarded Talbot with the Rumford Medal in 1842.
Talbot, however, faced controversy when he introduced the calotype in 1841. He received flak for patenting his process, which meant that individuals had to pay him a certain fee to be able to use his process. At first, Talbot sold patent licenses for the calotype at £20 apiece, but eventually brought it down to £4 while waiving the fee for amateurs. Still, professional photographers were required to pay up to a whopping £300 per year. Note that around the same time, the daguerreotype was also newly-introduced and, with the exception of Great Britain where Daguerre’s agent obtained a patent for it, was declared “free to the world.” But although the daguerreotype was more popular during the late 19th century (both because people could use it for free and it produced clearer images), Talbot’s process endured and nevertheless became one of the most important bases for modern photography. Talbot died on September 17, 1877 at age 77, and for the last 25 years of his life, he constantly worked on developing and perfecting his photographic process.
All information in this article were sourced from William Henry Fox Talbot on The Metropolitan Museum of Art, William Henry Fox Talbot on BBC, and the Wikipedia pages of Henry Fox Talbot and the Calotype. You may also see more of Talbot’s other photographs here.
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