Mathematician; chemist; historian; politician; botanist; philosopher—William Henry Fox Talbot was all of these things, and more. Born to a wealthy English family in the year 1800, Talbot was a true polymath. He excelled at everything he put his mind to, from solving calculus to decoding cuneiform, with one notable exception: his drawing skills weren’t quite up to snuff. So, naturally, he set out to invent a method of capturing images as the eye does on paper for posterity—and in doing so, became one of the forefathers of modern photography.  

Famous Photographer William Henry Fox Talbot

In 1834, Talbot began experimenting with light and chemicals in an effort to create a photographic process capable of producing and recording natural images. After only a few short months, he had discovered that coating a piece of paper in salt and a silver nitrate solution made it light-sensitive, causing it to darken in the sun. He also found that he could prevent further darkening with a second coat of salt. He dubbed the process “photogenic drawing,” and used it to make exact tracings of a variety of botanical specimens. 

Henry Fox Talbot Art Photographer

Talbot spent the next few years working to improve and build upon the photogenic drawing process, learning to capture silhouettes of landscapes by placing his sensitized papers in small cameras. He devised new methods for chemically stabilizing his results so that he could use direct sunlight to print a negative image produced in his camera onto another sheet of treated paper, creating a positive image. He thus became the father of what we now call the negative-positive photographic process. 

Dandelion Seeds Photgraphy By Fox Talbot

In January of 1839, Talbot received an unwelcome piece of news: Frenchman Louis Daguerre had just announced the invention of the first publicly available photographic process, the daguerreotype. Talbot took to the courts, asserting priority of invention based on his experiments dating to 1834. He presented his work and its workings to the Royal Society within weeks. However, by spring of the same year, it had become clear that Daguerre’s photographic process (which you can read about here) was very different from Talbot’s. 

Lady of the Lake Yale Center Photography By Fox Talbot

Undeterred, Talbot continued to refine his own process, and eventually created the calotype. An improvement on his original photogenic drawing process, the calotype only required only a couple minutes of exposure for subjects in bright sunlight. It produced a translucent negative, which could be used to make an unlimited number of positive prints by contact printing. Since daguerreotypes could only be reproduced by being copied with a camera, this opened up a world of possibilities for commercial photography. 

Nicholaas Henneman Showing Album to Charles Porter

Talbot patented the calotype process in 1841. He sold patent licenses to amateur photographers for 4 pounds, while professional photographers had to pay up to 300 pounds annually. He was widely criticized by the public for enforcing his patent rights, as many believed doing so hindered scientific freedom and progress. Talbot ignored his detractors, pointing out that he was just trying to recoup what he’d spent on the invention over the years, which he estimated to be about 5,000 pounds—and besides that, he’d made the process free for scientific uses from the beginning. 

An Ancient Door Magdalen College Oxford Photography By Henry Fox Talbot

Talbot’s patent controversies persisted and multiplied over the next 14 years. In 1851, when Frederick Scott Archer introduced the wet collodion process, which eclipsed the calotype for commercial use, Talbot attempted to assert a very broad interpretation of his patent rights that would require those using the wet collodion process to obtain a calotype license. In 1852, under pressure from the Royal Society, Talbot agreed to waive licensing fees for amateurs, but continued to pursue several lawsuits with professional photographers. In 1854, Talbot lost a major court case, which prevented him from requiring calotype licenses for those using the collodion process. In light of the decision, he chose not to extend his calotype patent.

William Henry Fox Talbot

Despite his rather fraught relationship with many of his contemporaries, Talbot is remembered today as one of the most important figures in photography history. He was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame at its inception in 1966, where he will forever be honored for his contributions to the field. 

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