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William Henry Fox Talbot

Born: Melbury, Dorset, 11 February 1800
Died: Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, 17 September 1877
Nationality: English
Background: 

aristocrat; son of William Davenport Talbot and Lady Elisabeth Fox Strangways

Studies: 

Harrow School; Cambridge University

Career: 

1822 – joins Royal Astronomical Society

1831 – joins Royal Society

1832-5 –House of Lords representative for Chippenham

1835 – produces first negative images; discovers that unlimited positives can be made from one photographic negative

1839 – publishes Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing

1840 – develops the calotype process; serves as High Sheriff of Wiltshire

1841 – publishes The Process of Calotype Photogenic Drawing; obtains patent for calotype process

1844 – publishes The Pencil of Nature, the first book illustrated with calotypes; printed at Talbot’s own press at Reading

1845 – publishes Sun Pictures in Scotland

Travels  

France (1843; 1846)

In a 13 February 1841 letter to the Literary Gazette, Henry Fox Talbot recalled:

“I remember it was said by many persons, at the time when photogenic drawing was first spoken of, that it was likely to prove injurious to art, as substituting mere mechanical labor in lieu of talent and experience. Now, so far from being the case, I find that in this, as in most other things, there is ample room for the exercise of skill and judgment. It would hardly be believed, how different an effect is produced by a longer or shorter exposure to the light, and, also, by mere variations in the fixing process, by means of which almost any tint, cold or warm, may be thrown over the picture, and the effect of bright or gloomy weather may be imitated at pleasure. All this falls within the artist’s province to combine and to regulate; and if, in the course of these manipulations, he…becomes a chemist and an optician, I feel confident that such an alliance of science with art will prove conducive to the improvement of both.”

Cited in Roger Taylor, Impressed by Light. British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (New Haven-London: Yale University Press, 2007), 15.

 

Ian Jeffrey comments on the aesthetic significance of Fox Talbot’s style:

“Fox Talbot provides one of the first and most important instances of a kind of picture making which raises crucial issues in the practice of photography, yet which is at the same time without any immediate sequel….At first sight his pictures have an apparent and disarming simplicity….Yet there is an underlying and more significant intention in his work…his pictures are…compositions and assemblages chosen and constructed according to a markedly regular pattern.

In the more extensive views of his farm premises he characteristically chose an oblique viewpoint to the cube-like blocks with which he composed…and the effect was usually that of pronounced recession along the regularly patterned sides of buildings….The regular forms and sharp lines of these objects function as examples of a man-made system against the disorder of nature, against the labyrinthine entanglements of hedgerow or shrubbery.

For Fox Talbot, though, it was not only the inchoate profusion of natural life, the idea of a complex infinity represented by the leaves of a tree or the windings of the honeysuckle but the idea of the void itself which is brought within the scope of his system. The very spaces between things are charted and demonstrated by the geometric overlay of vast shadows….

There is very little of consequence in the later history of photography which was not, in one way or another, anticipated in the work of Fox Talbot. The opposition between nature and culture which is the form and content of so much photography made during the 1930s was incisively established in the 1840s with the rural ingredients which came most readily to hand.”

Ian Jeffrey, “British Photography from Fox Talbot to E.O. Hoppé,” The Real Thing. An Anthology of British Photographs 1840-1950 (London: Hayward Gallery, 1975), 6-7.

 

Web Resources

The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot Project

The Fox Talbot Museum