Fox Talbot and the calotype

16 02 2008

Way back at the dawn of time I had a film camera. In fact, we had a cheap slr each and our honeymoon photos include paired shots of us photographing each other. Somewhere along the line, I lost my confidence, decided I had no talent as a photographer and stopped taking photographs completely. We even sold one of the cameras.

Years later Paul bought a digital camera. I didn’t use it much, but I was intrigued by the idea that I could get a digital camera and take as many pictures as I wanted and it wouldn’t matter how good or bad they were. There’s no extra cost to taking another photo, and if they don’t work you just delete them. And when you can view each new shot on screen, the instant feedback is a wonderful tool for improving your skills. So I bought a small digital camera. And when that broke, I bought a much better digital camera. I have taken photographs almost every day since May 2005 and I have undoubtedly learned a great deal since then. The digital camera was, for me, a liberating invention.

Recently, however, I’ve been thinking and reading about photographs as physical objects, about developing and printing, so I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve been reading about, starting with William Henry Fox Talbot and his invention of the calotype or Talbotype. He devised this process in 1840 and the amount of preparation and need for careful timing make it feel like his experience of photography can have had nothing at all in common with mine.


The calotype used high quality paper as a medium, rather than glass or film. The paper, which needed to be exceptionally smooth and uniform, was first washed with a solution of sliver nitrate, dried, soaked for a short time in potassium iodide, rinsed and dried again to produce ‘iodised paper’ which could be stored for some time. Before it could be used for taking photographs, the paper needed to be coated with a mix of silver nitrate and gallic acid (3,4,5-trihydroxybenzoic acid) and partially dried. It had then to be used within a few hours and could not be reliably stored.

The first part of the process was carried out by candlelight, but once the paper had been treated with the unstable gallo-nitrate mix the drying and loading of the calotype had to be done in (near)darkness. The calotpye needed to be exposed in sunlight for anything between tens of second and tens of minutes. The image was then developed by the application of further gallo-nitrate of silver, and the developing process stopped at the desired stage with the use of a fixing liquid.

The negative image could then be printed by sandwiching it between glass with paper which had been sensitised by the application of salt and then sodium nitrate solution and then exposing to bright light.


There is currently an exhibition of British photographs from paper negatives at the National Gallery of Art, Washington but if, like me, you can’t go and see that, there is an interesting virtual exhibition on their website.


Another terrific online resource is the Pencils of Light site at the National Library of Scotland. This features all the images from two albums of work by the Edinburgh Calotype Club. This was the first photographic club in the world, founded within a couple of years of the introduction of Talbot’s process. One of its most active members and compiler of the albums was James Francis Montgomery who took these photographs:




I find these picture warm and attractive in a way that leaves me most dissatisfied with my own digital efforts. I can’t, however, imagine me ever having the commitment or patience to produce anything as demanding as a calotype.






3 responses

16 02 2008
Andrew M

I was talking last night with Tim about the difference between Death Proof and the March of Time sequence in Citizen Kane. In the latter Robert Wise aged the film by running the negative through sand, whereas Tarantino presumably used the filmic equivalent of Photoshop to achieve his seventies look. (Curiously, of course, special effects often announce their affectedness.) And how different the age of the digital seems from, say, Jarman’s Super8, with all effects done in camera (in both senses: physical and secret).

Does it matter that the end result should be the same, whether analogue or digital? Hockney has been exploring the distance between camera and object in his fax and photocopy and Polaroid art; Macrae uses a real typewriter not a Courier font in his typewriter art. Isn’t the distance invisible? Once it’s scanned hasn’t the physical gone from the typewriter art?

(I’ve hovered on the age of New Media and Digital Aesthetics. New Media seems to rebottle Old Media issues/Digital Aesthetics are probably the same as analogue ones save for the announcement of its digitalis. Digital Aesthetic: Good/Bad. Choose only one.)

So Digital Photographs vs. Calotypes. We’ve lost the work. We do fetishize the work ethic. We’ve also lost the time; I think the exposures of digital cameras differ from those of SLR, but also the time of development as you’ve outlined it vs. download.

Time and space. Burning. Scratching. Catalysing. Converting.

16 02 2008
Inversion Layer

Andrew, I’m certainly not suggesting that art should be valued according to the method of production. What I’m wondering about is whether digital photography tends towards clarity and sharpness – perfection, if you will – where a less controllable, more unpredictable process creates imperfection. (Perfection/imperfection are poor descriptions, but I’m struggling for better terms.)

When I look at things I didn’t create, I respond more to imperfection; I like it better, I engage with it. If I’m creating only with digital tools, I tend to forget that.


16 02 2008
Andrew M

I suspect such value judgements are made though: see, say the arguments over free verse vs. rhymed poetry, painting vs. photos. I think there’s an authenticity we grant to physical objects that have been worked on that we don’t arrive at in the same way in the digital

Given Photoshop (or whatever) you could introduce imperfection if you choose.

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