FOXTALBOT AND FRIENDS

THE HIS­TORY OF PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

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Be­fore the 19th cen­tury, the only way to pre­serve images of fam­ily, friends and favourite places was through paint­ing and draw­ing. Of­fi­cial por­trai­ture was ex­pen­sive and time-con­sum­ing, and there­fore only an op­tion for Roy­alty and the no­bil­ity. All that be­gan to change in the early 1800s with the in­ven­tion of the first pho­to­graphic images. By the end of the cen­tury, pho­to­graphic pro­cesses had been re­fined so that they were speedy and there­fore prac­ti­ca­ble, and the in­tro­duc­tion of the first cheap, easy-to-use cam­era by Ko­dak opened up pho­tog­ra­phy as a na­tional pas­time that most peo­ple could af­ford. Cru­cially, this en­abled peo­ple from all walks of life to pre­serve images of loved ones for the fam­ily al­bum.

Lord of the Manor

The man cred­ited with in­vent­ing mod­ern pho­tog­ra­phy is Wil­liam Henry Fox Tal­bot, who was Lord of the Manor at La­cock Abbey in Wilt­shire from 1827 un­til his death 50 years later.

Fox Tal­bot was born on 11 Fe­bru­ary 1800 at Mel­bury, Dorset, to army of­fi­cer Wil­liam Daven­port Tal­bot and Lady Elis­a­beth FoxS­trange­ways, daugh­ter of the Earl of Ilch­ester. His fa­ther died when he was six months old, leav­ing the La­cock es­tate heav­ily in debt, so the Abbey had to be leased out while Henry and his mother lived with rel­a­tives. In 1804, Lady Elis­a­beth mar­ried Cap­tain Charles Feild­ing, who helped re­build La­cock’s for­tunes and the fam­ily re­turned to live there in 1827.

Tal­bot ex­celled aca­dem­i­cally as a child and was de­scribed by Dr But­ler, his tu­tor at Har­row School, as ‘one of the clever­est and most ami­able boys I have ever known’. He de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in chem­istry at Har­row, and be­came known for his many ex­per­i­ments. In 1819, he went up to Trin­ity Col­lege, Cam­bridge, where he won sev­eral prizes and grad­u­ated with first­class honours in Math­e­mat­ics. Soon af­ter­wards, he be­gan writ­ing math­e­mat­i­cal pa­pers for the Royal So­ci­ety and con­tin­ued to do so for the next half cen­tury. He was elected Fel­low of the Royal So­ci­ety in 1831, be­came a mem­ber of the So­ci­ety’s Coun­cil in 1836, and was awarded the Royal Medal in 1838. But his in­ter­ests ex­tended be­yond math­e­mat­ics; he was also a keen clas­si­cist, an­ti­quar­ian, ar­chae­ol­o­gist, botanist, as­tronomer and ge­ol­o­gist. He wrote over 100 ar­ti­cles and eight books, in­clud­ing Her­mes, or Clas­si­cal and An­ti­quar­ian Re­searches (1838-39) and Il­lus­tra­tions of the An­tiq­uity of the Book of Ge­n­e­sis (1839), as well as be­ing one of the first to de­ci­pher the an­cient cu­nei­form scripts of Me­sopotamia.

Pol­i­tics oc­cu­pied him for a short while and he served as the Whig Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment for Chip­pen­ham from 1832 to 1835, as well as hold­ing the of­fice of High Sher­iff of Wilt­shire in 1840. Mean­while, in his per­sonal life, he mar­ried Con­stance Mundy of Markeaton Hall, Der­byshire, in 1832, and the cou­ple went on to have four chil­dren: Ela, Rosa­mond, Matilda and Charles.

The start of pho­tog­ra­phy

There was one tal­ent that Tal­bot, by his own ad­mis­sion, did not pos­sess – and that was an artis­tic one. Dur­ing his hon­ey­moon in 1833, while on the shores of Lake Como in Italy, Con­stance and other fam­ily mem­bers and friends were sketch­ing and paint­ing the beau­ti­ful scenes around them. Tal­bot’s own ef­forts ended in fail­ure, but this set him

think­ing about whether there was a sci­en­tific way of cap­tur­ing and pre­serv­ing images.

Back at La­cock, he be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with sheets of pa­per coated with dif­fer­ent so­lu­tions of sil­ver ni­trate and sodium chlo­ride to test their re­ac­tion to sun­light. By plac­ing an ob­ject on the pa­per and leav­ing it in the sun, a sil­hou­ette of the ob­ject was formed by the darken­ing of the un­cov­ered ar­eas. Soon af­ter­wards, Tal­bot found a way of sta­bil­is­ing the im­age so that it wouldn’t de­te­ri­o­rate upon fur­ther ex­po­sure to light. In Au­gust 1835, he cre­ated the world’s first neg­a­tive – an in­cred­i­bly de­tailed im­age of a lat­ticed win­dow at La­cock Abbey. Cru­cially, Tal­bot re­alised that a neg­a­tive could be used to pro­duce mul­ti­ple copies of an im­age.

But Tal­bot wasn’t alone in try­ing to find ways of cap­tur­ing and pre­serv­ing images. In Paris, a young artist and pho­tog­ra­pher by the name of Louis Da­guerre had been car­ry­ing out sim­i­lar ex­per­i­ments since the late 1820s. In Jan­uary 1839, he an­nounced the launch of his own pho­tog­ra­phy sys­tem, the Da­guerreo­type, and was promptly hailed as the ‘fa­ther of pho­tog­ra­phy’ – much to Tal­bot’s dis­may.

He re­sponded by pre­sent­ing his own find­ings to the Royal In­sti­tu­tion on 31 Jan­uary 1839. His pre­sen­ta­tion was later pub­lished in sev­eral jour­nals, as well as by Tal­bot him­self, in the form of a pam­phlet. The fol­low­ing year he de­vel­oped the calo­type, a process that im­proved upon Da­guerre’s sys­tem by re­duc­ing ex­po­sure times and us­ing pa­per rather than ex­pen­sive metal plates. He patented the calo­type in 1841.

In 1843, Tal­bot set up the Read­ing Es­tab­lish­ment, the world’s first pho­to­graphic print­ing firm. Sadly, its ex­is­tence was short­lived, but it did al­low Tal­bot to pub­lish The Pen­cil of Na­ture, which gave a de­tailed ac­count

of his re­search and was the first com­mer­cial book to in­clude pho­to­graphic il­lus­tra­tions. A fac­sim­ile of the orig­i­nal can be seen in the Fox Tal­bot Mu­seum.

Tal­bot con­tin­ued to fo­cus on im­prov­ing pho­to­graphic pro­ce­dures, and when he died on 17 Septem­ber 1877 – leav­ing a body of around 4500 images – his place in the his­tory books as an im­por­tant in­no­va­tor of the 19th cen­tury was as­sured.

How pho­tog­ra­phy changed the world

The ad­vent of pho­tog­ra­phy opened up por­trai­ture to a greater num­ber of peo­ple. It was no longer the pre­serve of the wealthy, but some­thing that al­most ev­ery­body could af­ford to do. The idea of cre­at­ing a fam­ily al­bum be­came in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar, and peo­ple were keen to fill their al­bums with por­traits taken of fam­ily mem­bers at dif­fer­ent stages of their lives.

When Tal­bot and Da­guerre first an­nounced their pho­tog­ra­phy pro­cesses, ex­po­sure times were still too slow for por­traits. By the 1840s, fur­ther im­prove­ments had brought ex­po­sure times down to less than a minute, mak­ing por­trait pho­tog­ra­phy much more ap­peal­ing and prac­ti­ca­ble. Pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dios be­gan to ap­pear in Lon­don in 1841, and within a few

years were present in al­most ev­ery city and small town in the UK. Itin­er­ant pho­tog­ra­phers also be­gan to ap­pear, trav­el­ling be­tween vil­lages to pho­to­graph those un­able to make it into their near­est town.

Soon peo­ple were hav­ing por­traits taken to mark key events in their lives, such as births, chris­ten­ings, wed­dings and deaths. It was not un­usual, in the Vic­to­rian era, for pho­tog­ra­phers to be in­vited to take por­traits of fam­ily mem­bers who had passed away. At a time when the in­fant mor­tal­ity rate was still high, tak­ing a pic­ture of a de­ceased baby in its mother’s arms, look­ing as though it was merely asleep, could be of huge com­fort to be­reaved par­ents. Of­ten the child would be pho­tographed as part of a fam­ily group, pro­vid­ing a trea­sured me­mo­rial for the fam­ily al­bum.

Wed­ding por­traits were usu­ally taken in a pho­tog­ra­pher’s stu­dio, rather than at a church or registry of­fice, and it was not un­til the 20th cen­tury that it be­came cus­tom­ary for the bride to wear a white dress and the groom to be in a din­ner suit. This means it isn’t al­ways ob­vi­ous that a pic­ture is a wed­ding por­trait, al­though brides did some­times wear veils.

Por­traits with fam­ily mem­bers dressed in their Sun­day best were also pop­u­lar, and it was con­ven­tional for ev­ery­one to be di­rectly fac­ing the cam­era. Chil­dren were usu­ally pho­tographed in the morn­ing when the sun was at its bright­est, as this meant ex­po­sure times were short­est and they could take the por­trait be­fore the chil­dren started to get rest­less. Peo­ple were also some­times pho­tographed in uni­forms or clothes that in­di­cated their oc­cu­pa­tion, of­ten with ap­pro­pri­ate ob­jects - a carv­ing knife for a butcher or a skull for a doc­tor.

Pho­tog­ra­phy had an­other im­por­tant func­tion - it ex­panded peo­ple’s knowl­edge of the world. As its pop­u­lar­ity grew, those who could af­ford to do so would travel abroad, tak­ing pic­tures of fa­mous land­marks and build­ings. This in turn in­spired more peo­ple to travel, ei­ther in the UK or over­seas, helped by the ex­pan­sion of the rail­ways and the pub­li­ca­tion of travel guides such as the Brad­shaw’s hand­books. Thus, pho­tog­ra­phy be­came part of the great travel rev­o­lu­tion of the 19th cen­tury, when more peo­ple than ever be­fore were able to af­ford to get out and about.

An­other ma­jor rev­o­lu­tion for the late Vic­to­ri­ans was the in­tro­duc­tion of the first Ko­dak cam­era in 1888 (see YFH 186, p96 for a his­tory of the Ko­dak Brownie). Mar­keted with the slo­gan ‘you press the but­ton, we do the rest’, this cheap, easy-to-use cam­era car­ried a roll of film that could take 100 pic­tures. The cam­era was then sent to Ko­dak for de­vel­op­ing and print­ing. This marked the be­gin­ning of am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­phy. By the turn of the cen­tury most peo­ple could af­ford a Ko­dak cam­era, and soon fam­ily al­bums were be­ing filled with per­sonal snap­shots of hol­i­days, days out, wed­dings and so on. Peo­ple still went to stu­dios for of­fi­cial por­traits, but in­for­mal pic­tures be­came in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar. The style of pic­tures no­tice­ably changed; the old con­ven­tion of putting on a se­ri­ous face for the cam­era grad­u­ally dis­ap­peared in favour of fun, re­laxed shots that were much more re­flec­tive of peo­ple’s real moods, per­son­al­i­ties and in­ter­ests.

On­go­ing de­vel­op­ments in the style and so­phis­ti­ca­tion of cam­eras and pro­cess­ing tech­niques through­out the 20th cen­tury brought about the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, which has opened up even greater op­por­tu­ni­ties for self­por­trai­ture and the build­ing of a very per­sonal li­brary of trea­sured me­mories.

By the 1840s, im­prove­ments had brought ex­po­sure times down to less than a minute

Fox Tal­bot, pho­tographed by Richard Beard in 1841

An im­age of Con­stance Tal­bot, the pho­tog­ra­pher's wife

This im­age of a lat­ticed win­dow at La­cock Abbey taken in 1835 was made from what is be­lieved to be the old­est pho­to­graphic neg­a­tive in ex­is­tence

Fox Tal­bot pic­tured in 1864

Fox Tal­bot (far right) at the Read­ing Es­tab­lish­ment in 1846

Above: Da­guerre’s ‘Boule­vard du Tem­ple’, a scene he pho­tographed in Paris in 1838 Eight: Louis Da­guerre in 1844

A pho­to­graphic stu­dio in the 1880s – here aided by elec­tric light

A Vic­to­rian pho­to­graphic stu­dio

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