The Birth of Modern Photography


512px-William_Henry_Fox_Talbot,_by_John_Moffat,_1864

Fox Talbot, with camera.

We have always learned a great deal from the use of texts, and of course from traditional word of mouth down the years. Where, however, would we be, without the picture? Or more specifically, the photograph? A drawing can tell us a lot, but a real image can provide us with even more – a real, genuine feel for the subject we are studying. For this reason, William Henry Fox Talbot, should be worth of a mention.

Fox Talbot was born on 11 February 1800 in Melbury, Dorset. He went to Cambridge University at the age of 17 in 1817, and in 1832 he was elected as an MP for Chippenham in Wiltshire, where he lived with his wife, Constance Mundy.

On a visit to Lake Como in Italy in 1833, Talbot was trying to draw the view before him, but his lack of success at capturing the beauty of the scenery prompted him to think about how he might create a machine that could capture the scene for him.

Once back at his home in Lacock in Wiltshire, Talbot began work on this project, using light-sensitive paper that he hoped would make sketches automatically.

Talbot was not the first inventor to have this idea. Thomas Wedgwood had already made photograms, which had successfully left lasting silhouettes of objects on paper, but these faded quickly. Then in 1839, Louis Daguerre invented the ‘daguerreotype.’ This was a system by which pictures could be captured onto silver plates.

Only three weeks after Daguerre revealed his invention, Fox Talbot reported his ‘art of photogenic drawing’ to the Royal Society. This process showed how to capture prints on thin pieces of paper that had been made light sensitive. This invention was to become the first step in the development of modern photography.

In 1841 Talbot went on to develop his photographic ideas further, when he invented the ‘calotype’ process. This involved discovering the three most essential elements required to develop pictures: developing, fixing, and printing photographs.

Talbot found that although exposing photographic paper to light produced an image, he believed it required extremely long exposure times to achieve success. Then, by accident, Talbot discovered that an image could actually be achieved after a very short exposure time, and could then be chemically fixed into a negative. This negative removed the light-sensitive nature of the print, and enabled the finished picture to be viewed in bright light.

With these new negative images, Fox Talbot could repeat the process of printing from the negative as many times as he liked. This was a major advance from the French daguerreotypes, which could only be used once.

In 1842 Talbot was awarded a medal from the Royal Society for his work in the progression of photography.

The work William Henry Fox Talbot had done on the calotype process, led to future inventors advancing the photographic process even further in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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