Invention of the negative makes Fox Talbot father of modern photography | Photography

Invention of the negative makes Fox Talbot father of modern photography | Photography

Once it was a simple case of rivalry between France and England. Was a Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, the real inventor of photography, or did an Englishman, William Henry Fox Talbot, get there first?

This week a new exhibition will answer the question, alongside other key puzzles, about the shared discovery of a process that forever changed the way humans look at the world.

Fox Talbot, born in Dorset in 1800, and Daguerre, his older rival, both separately invented similar chemical processes at about the same time. The Frenchman went on to give his name to the daguerrotype, a basic form of printed image, ensuring his reputation for posterity. But it is Fox Talbot who can truly lay claim to being the father of modern photography, according to the exhibition’s curator, Professor Geoffrey Batchen. Fox Talbot is the one who crucially worked with the first “negatives” and found out how to stop his prints from fading away.

“Fox Talbot did invent photography, we can say that, but what we want to show is that, while his claim is as strong as anyone else’s, what he alone really gave to photography is the idea of the negative, the reverse image, used to create more prints. He also worked out how to fix images,” said Phillip Roberts, curator of photography at the Bodleian Library. “Looking at his notebooks in our archive we can see how he first used contact prints to make images of plants on paper, creating a silhouette. And if you lay down a more transparent object, you see all the detail.”

William Henry Fox Talbot, Ancient cedar tree at Mount Edgecombe, salt print from a Calotype negative by WHF Talbot, c.1843.
William Henry Fox Talbot, Ancient cedar tree at Mount Edgecombe, salt print from a Calotype negative by WHF Talbot, c.1843. Photograph: Gaisford Collection

The exhibition, which opens at the library in Oxford this Friday, will display examples of Fox Talbot’s early “calotypes”, fixed by him from 1843, so that they became stable in light. “His mother wanted him to call them, talbottypes, but he chose not to,” said Roberts.

The exhibition takes its title, Bright Sparks, from Fox Talbot’s early experiments with making images using a glass electric discharge wand, which will also be displayed. Due to their photosensitivity, many of his first, so-called “photogenic drawings” cannot be exposed to light at all and will only be exhibited inside a light-tight box.

A joint exhibition, Natural Magic, will display work by contemporary artists using the same chemical techniques.

“Fox Talbot was a genius, but he’s not the only one. He did not create it all alone, in a single flash of thought,” said Roberts. “It was a question of people working together and we want our exhibition to show the significant role of others, including a groundbreaking Englishwoman whose role has been forgotten.”

The photographic experiments of scientist Mary Somerville have been overlooked perhaps not so much because of historic sexism, but because of her many other achievements. Somerville, a brilliant mathematician who gives her name to an Oxford University college, discovered a plant-based form of “vegetarian photography” that continues to be influential.

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

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

Mary Somerville, Colour test paper from plant emulsion, 1845-1850.
Mary Somerville, Colour test paper from plant emulsion, 1845-1850. Photograph: Courtesy of Somerville College

“People still follow these same processes now, but Somerville’s images were ultimately unstable. They were fleeting, ephemeral things. Remarkably, though, we did find two little coloured strips of tape in the back of one her notebooks which have survived. One is blue and the other is red. We’re working on them to see what they are made of, but we can’t display them. She may have used blackcurrant, or a flower petal.”

Roberts hopes the exhibition will demonstrate how early photography was reinvented several times, using different techniques. Until the digital age arrived, the principle of letting limited light change chemicals was the basis of them all.

And it seems Fox Talbot’s original inspiration may have come from a woman who was closer to home. A sketchbook to go on display in the exhibition belonged to his wife, Constance, and it includes a plant drawing that prompted her husband to go into the laboratory.

He later wrote that it had “led me to reflect on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature’s painting which the glass lens of the camera throws upon the paper in its focus… how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper!”