PROOF POSITIVE (AND NEGATIVE)
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? I asked myself. –William Henry Fox Talbot
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IMAGINE THAT, IN ADDITION TO MAKING THE AUTOMOBILE PRACTICAL AND AFFORDABLE, Henry Ford had also been the world’s foremost racing driver. Or that Rembrandt had also invented canvas. The history of invention occasionally puts forth outliers who not only envision an improvement for the world, but become renowned as the best, first models for how to use it. The early days of photography saw several such giants, tinkerers who nudged the infant technique forward even as they became its first artists.
Unlike the telephone or the incandescent bulb, there was, for the camera, no single parent, but rather a series of talented midwives who massaged the young art from exotic hobby to mass movement, the most democratic of all art forms. Thus, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) was not the first person to use light and chemistry to permanently fix and preserve images. But, without his contributions, printed photograph might never have evolved, nor would the negative, the easiest method for printing endless numbers of copies from a single master.
Talbot’s work began as a way to improve upon the daguerreotype, which dominated the photographic world in the early 1800’s and which was, as a positive image printed directly on glass, literally one of a kind, barring duplication or distribution. If photography were to be widely practiced, Talbot reasoned, a practical method had to be created to allow photos to be made from photos.
Talbot’s first attempts consisted of ordinary typing paper coated in a solution of salt and silver nitrate. The resulting silver-chloride mixture was highly sensitive to light, darkening as it was exposed, and registering the light and dark values of a subject backwards, as a negative. However, over the long exposures needed at the time, the darkening process often accelerated to make the image completely black, so Talbot had to experiment with other chemicals to render the process stable, to develop just so much and then stop. The next step was creating what would become the first chemical developers, allowing for shorter exposure times and more vivid images printed from his paper negatives.
Various refinements in the “calotype” process followed, along with a hash of bitter patent battles between Talbot and other inventors evolving similar systems. Interestingly, along the way, the need to demonstrate the superior results of his products had the accidental side effect of making Talbot himself one of the period’s most practiced early photographers, giving him equal influence over inventors and artists alike.
In time, Talbot’s calotype system would be further improved by coating glass with collodion, making for a sharper and more detailed negative from which to create prints. The final step toward universal adoption of photography would be George Eastman’s idea for a flexible celluloid-based film negative, the process that ushered in the age of the snapshot and put a camera in Everyman’s hands.