The First Negative
An idea occurred to William Henry Fox Talbot, a researcher, mathematician, chemist, and member of the English Parliament, while he was on his honeymoon in Italy. He was attempting to sketch a scene with the help of a camera lucida, a device used by artists of his day, which threw an image onto paper as an aid to sketching. Frustrated at the results, he was determined to find a way to permanently capture the beauty of the scene before him. He mused “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?”
Talbot jotted down thoughts about experiments he could conduct at home to see if the beauties of nature could be permanently captured through the action of light on certain material substances. As a consequence of his experiments, he developed a process he called “the art of photogenic drawing.”
Talbot used paper embedded with silver chloride, which he topped with various objects and exposed to the sun. This process created a negative image, rendering dark objects light and light objects dark. He then soaked the paper negative in oil, which made the light areas translucent, and made a positive print by shining light through it onto another piece of photosensitive paper. He patented his process in 1841, and the following year he was awarded a medal from Britain's Royal Society.
Talbot's negative-to-positive process made it possible to create multiple copies of the same image. However, the images it produced were crude and fuzzy compared to Daguerre's crisply rendered plates. Most people preferred the latter, and Talbot's invention was never widely employed, although it did represent a vital step in the development of modern photography.
William Talbot's negative-positive system most likely predates the daguerreotype. Although Daguerre's invention was announced earlier, Talbot's letters indicate that he had invented his system in 1835 but chose not to announce it until he perfected it. When Daguerre's invention was made public in 1839, Talbot then rushed to publicize his own work.
Talbot's inventions didn't end with the negative-positive process. In the next few years, he also came up with the following techniques and ideas:
The calotype (from the Greek
Using a fine mesh screen to create a halftone image for printing purposes.
Photoglyphy, a photoengraving process he patented in 1858.
Flash photography, which he demonstrated in 1851 when he photographed a newspaper using the light from an electric spark. He did this to demonstrate how a moving subject (the newspaper was spinning) could be captured sharply by a very short-duration flash; in this case, less than 1/10,000 of a second.
Talbot displayed how well several of his inventions worked in 1844, when he published
The earliest known surviving photographic negative on paper was taken by Talbot in 1835. “Latticed Window,” an image of a window in his home, Lacock Abbey, resides in the photographic collection of the Science Museum at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, England.
Inspired by Daguerre and Talbot, English astronomer Sir John Herschel also began experimenting with the photographic process. He discovered that hyposulfite of soda, the chemical now referred to as hypo, would fix images on photosensitive paper by stopping the chemical action of silver salts.
In 1851, the new science of photography was further refined by Frederick Scott Archer's invention of wet-plate collodion photography. This process involved spreading a mixture of collodion — a wound-dressing material made of nitrated cotton dissolved in ether and alcohol — and other chemicals on sheets of glass. It delivered more highly refined images than either Talbot's or Daguerre's methods. In 1871, English physician Richard Leach Maddox took Archer's discovery a step further with his dry-plate process, which used an emulsion of gelatin and silver bromide on a glass plate.