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

Fox Talbot’s history of photography: A fierce rivalry

Fox Talbot's history of photography: A fierce rivalry

Latticed window at Lacock Abbey, August 1835.

By 1839, however, a challenger had emerged. News had arrived out of France that a man named Louis Daguerre had discovered his own photographic process.

The images produced, though expensive, where so pin sharp as to be declared almost miraculous, and were far more detailed than those produced by Fox Talbot. The New Yorker hailed the process as “a discovery launched upon the world that must make a revolution in art.”

Stunned at being pre-empted to the announcement of something he felt he himself had invented, Fox Talbot quickly presented his photographic discoveries to the Royal Institution in January 1839.

In making his case he stated: “I do not claim to have perfected an art, but to have commenced one, the limits of which it is not possible at present exactly to ascertain.”

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A year later he made the breakthrough he so desperately needed. By applying a chemical solution to light-sensitive paper that had been exposed for only a few seconds, a latent, invisible image could be brought out and developed into a visible photograph.

This ‘calotype’ process drastically reduced the necessary exposure time from an hour or more to seconds, radically improving photography’s practicality.

Fox Talbot’s invention held another key advantage over Daguerre’s method by producing negative prints that were then turned into finished positives, allowing unlimited reproduction of photographic images.

Daguerre’s method produced only positives, meaning that the only way to reproduce the image was to take a photograph of the original exposure, a costly and time consuming inconvenience.

By 1865 Daguerreotypes were commercially dead, outmanoeuvred by Talbot’s simple, inexpensive innovation.

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“Natural magic”
By the time of his death in 1877, Fox Talbot’s place in history was assured. His brilliant advances had popularised photography, taking an expensive, time-consuming profession and laying the foundations for its mass-market adoption.

The dramatic reduction in exposure times and easy, affordable reproduction of images meant that photography could be enjoyed by amateurs and professionals alike, bringing it into the mainstream and plotting it on a trajectory that has continued well into the modern age.

“It is a little bit of magic realised – of natural magic,” he declared of the craft he helped shape. What better way to describe an art form we have all come to love, so many years since his famous discoveries?

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

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