The invention of the negative made Fox Talbot the father of modern photography

It used to be a simple case of rivalry between France and England. Was a Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, the true inventor of photography, or was an Englishman, William Henry Fox Talbot, there first?

This week, a new exhibition, among other key puzzles, answers the question of the collective discovery of a process that forever changed the way people look at the world.

Fox Talbot, born in Dorset in 1800, and Daguerre, his older rival, both invented similar chemical processes at about the same time. The French gave his name to the daguerrotype, a basic form of the printed image, and secured his reputation for posterity. But according to the exhibition’s curator, Professor Geoffrey Batchen, Fox Talbot can truly claim to be the father of modern photography. Fox Talbot was the one who was instrumental in working with the first ‘negatives’ and figuring out how to keep his prints from fading.

“Fox Talbot invented photography, we can say that, but what we want to show is that, while his claim is as strong as everyone else’s, he really gave photography the idea of ​​the negative, the inverted image, around to create more prints. He also figured out how to fix pictures,” said Phillip Roberts, curator of photography at the Bodleian Library. “If we look at his notebooks in our archive, we can see how he first used contact sheets to take pictures of plants on paper and create a silhouette. And if you put a more transparent object down, you can see all the details.”

The exhibition, which opens this Friday at the Oxford Library, features examples of Fox Talbot’s early ‘calotypes’, which he fixed from 1843 to make them light stable. “His mother wanted him to call them Talbot guys, but he decided against it,” Roberts said.

The exhibition is titled Bright Sparks from Fox Talbot’s early experiments in making images with a glass electric discharge rod, which is also on display. Many of his first, so-called “photogenic drawings” cannot be exposed at all due to their sensitivity to light and are only exhibited in a light-proof box.

A joint exhibition, Natural Magic, features works by contemporary artists using the same chemical techniques.

“Fox Talbot was a genius, but he’s not the only one. He didn’t do it all by himself in a flash of inspiration,” Roberts said. “It was a matter of people working together and we want our exhibition to show the significant role of others, including a pioneering Englishwoman whose role has been forgotten.”

Scientist Mary Somerville’s photographic experiments have perhaps been overlooked not so much for their historical sexism as for their many other accomplishments. Somerville, a brilliant mathematician who lends her name to a college at Oxford University, discovered a plant-based form of “vegetarian photography” that remains influential.

John Herschel, a close friend and fellow experimenter of Fox Talbot, wrote to Somerville regularly and even helped her photographic investigations to some publicity. As a woman, she was not allowed to publish her theories in the Journal of the Royal Society and so Herschel outlined it in a letter to her, gave her full credit, and had that published instead.

“Herschel had developed his own blue images, or cyanotypes, and he supported their studies,” Roberts said. “She had discovered that plants, and in fact all plant matter, respond to natural light. Her science, which was already a big deal, overlapped with her photography, and she mixed silver nitrates with alcohols and various botanicals to see what happened.

“People still follow the same processes, but Somerville’s images were ultimately unstable. They were fleeting, ephemeral things. Remarkably, however, we found two small pieces of colored tape on the back of one of her notebooks that have survived. One is blue and the other is red. We’re working on them to see what they’re made of, but we can’t display them. Maybe she used blackcurrants or a flower petal.”

Roberts hopes the exhibition will show how early photography was reinvented several times, using different techniques. Until the dawn of the digital age, the principle of allowing chemicals to be modified by light to a limited extent was the basis of all.

And it seems Fox Talbot’s original inspiration came from a woman closer to home. A sketchbook in the exhibition belonged to his wife, Constance, and contains a plant drawing that prompted her husband to go to the lab.

He later wrote that it “made me reflect on the inimitable beauty of the images of nature painting that the camera’s glass lens casts on the paper at its focus…how enchanting it would be if it were possible to create these natural images themselves permanently.” to memorize and stay fixed on the paper!”

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