The Image Revealed

ARCHIVE
2008

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First Photographs on Paper in Great-Britain (1840-1860)


William Fox TalbotThe Haystack © The RPS Collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford

Fixing Reality

The official announcement of Daguerre and Fox Talbot's inventions both came at the beginning of 1839. On 7 January, Arago presented the daguerreotype to the Académie des Sciences in Paris. The arrival of this news in England prompted Fox Talbot to abandon his reticence. Having been very discreet until then about the contents of his work, he exhibited his first photogenic drawings in London at the end of January 1839.
The two techniques were very different. Daguerre used a polished, silver-coated copper plate, made sensitive to light by iodine vapour. The resulting image was sometimes positive, sometimes negative, depending on the angle it was viewed. Each one was unique, and could not be reproduced.
On the other hand, Fox Talbot used paper sensitised to light through a chemical treatment based on sea salt and silver nitrate. After exposing it to light, he obtained a "negative" where the light and dark tones of the subject were reversed. This was then used to develop as many "positive" prints as were required. This principle laid down the foundations for photography for the next one hundred and fifty years.

William CollieTwo Fisher Girls
From an aesthetic point of view, the images produced by the two processes were also very different. In an article written in 1930, the art critic Waldemar-George described the daguerrian image in terms of: "the precise work of a calligrapher who emphasises details and strives to achieve a sharp image". On the other hand, the calotype played on the masses of shade and light, blurring the detail. The metallic, mirror-like brightness of the daguerreotype is contrasted with the graininess of the paper and the softness of its grey or brown tones.

After presenting his invention, Fox Talbot continued with his research. He discovered that a latent image formed on the photosensitive paper after it had been exposed to light, and that it was possible to make it visible through a "development". This method enabled him to reduce the exposure time considerably. In June 1841, he finally published the complete description of his process, and called it the "calotype", from the Greekkalos, meaning "beautiful".

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