William Henry Fox Talbot – The First Photographer

Since the first photograph was taken in 1826, the art of photography has evolved to be accessible to the masses. The evolution of photography no doubt owes a large debt to the pioneering of William “Henry” Fox Talbot, who, enamoured by curiosity, and above all motivation, was responsible for developing the calotype process.

William Henry Fox Talbot, taken by John Moffat 1864

Many people argue over who invented the first photographic process: Daguerre or Fox Talbot. To me this is irrelevant. Fox Talbot certainly wasn’t the first man to take a photograph but he was the first photographer. By this I mean someone who wanted to create an image with light for the sheer beauty of the art form rather than for the sole purpose of exercising their scientific interest or entrepreneurial ambitions.

Fox Talbot’s inspiration stemmed from his honeymoon, when he found that his drawings were unable to imitate the beauty of nature. Keen to permanently capture natural images on paper, Fox Talbot embarked on several years of experimentation, eventually resulting in a method which allowed for fixing an image and developing multiple copies of a photo from a single paper negative.

For use in his experiments, Fox Talbot developed what his wife termed ‘mouse trap cameras’ – 2 to 3 inch boxes with lenses made from telescope eyepieces. Alongside naming this invention, Henry’s wife Constance is also credited as being the first woman to take a photograph. Less is recorded in history about Constance and her interest in photography, though she is one of the most influential figures in the history of the art form.

Constance Fox Talbot, taken by William Henry Fox Talbot c.1840

Like Henry, many people who take photographs today wish to capture the beauty of the natural world. Fox Talbot’s paper negative process was ahead of its time. The notion of using negatives to create positives was a principle that underpinned roll-film photography (to be invented 70 years later) all the way until the digital era. Today’s generation of photographers benefit from advanced techniques and equipment which make it possible to capture a whole world of scenery and subjects, as was the aspiration of Fox Talbot almost 190 years ago.

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Written by Vanessa Catterall

Edited by Daniel Firth

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