History of photography: why Fox Talbot is photography’s most important pioneer

History of photography: why William Henry Fox Talbot is photography's most important pioneer

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of photography, and Sir William Henry Fox Talbot’s formal documentation of the photographic process in 1839.

To celebrate this landmark achievement, Digital Camera World – and our other leading photography magazines and websites, will be running a series of special articles tracing the history of photography, and shining a light on the most important people, innovations and iconic cameras and kit of the last 175 years.

We’ll be updating the site and our social media pages regularly (Twitter #175years) with further forays into the history of photography – and we’ll bring you details of an exciting competition celebrating the anniversary very soon…

All words below by Alex Blake


History of photography: why William Henry Fox Talbot is photography's most important pioneer

Images via Wikimedia Commons

The history of photography began 175 years ago when two historic discoveries were announced, one by William Henry Fox Talbot and the other by his great rival Louis Daguerre.

Each revealed a revolutionary way of capturing images in permanent, lasting form, but it was Fox Talbot’s method that outlived his opponent’s and paved the way for modern photography.

In this first instalment of our series we look back on how Talbot’s discoveries democratised an expensive, time-consuming industry, sowed the seeds of modern photography, and changed art forever.

SEE MORE: The 55 best photographers of all time. In the history of the world. Definitely.

A revolutionary idea
Fox Talbot was born in 1800 near Chippenham, Wiltshire, UK. A brilliant student but painfully shy, he was accepted into Harrow school and later Cambridge University, where he studied mathematics.

After graduating in 1821 with first class honours, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society a year later.

Fox Talbot’s photographic journey began in October 1833 on the balmy shores of Italy’s Lake Como. The future inventor was attempting to sketch the stunning surroundings using a camera lucida, but found his unsteady hand was not faithful to the splendour of nature, while the camera lucida, though accurate, made no permanent impression upon the paper.

This gave him an interesting idea: “How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper! And why should it not be possible?”

Why indeed. He set about making his idea a reality, and in 1835 constructed his own camera obscura, inserted a sheet of light-sensitive paper into the box, aimed it at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire and left it in place for an hour.

When he returned, he found that an image of the abbey had been transferred onto the paper in permanent form. He realised then that he was onto something.

PAGE 1: A revolutionary idea
PAGE 2: A fierce rivalry
PAGE 3: Discover the history of photography


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