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PHOTOGRAPHY 150 : Images from the First Generation

A small exhibition of treasures from the Museum's celebrated collection of early photographs (1839 - 1859), to mark the 150th anniversary of the invention


This display case contains a selection from the Museum's small collection of calotypes, the refined process which succeeded the photogenic drawing in 1841. Examples are included of the calotype proper (the negative), and of its offshoot the waxed paper negative. Otherwise the items exhibited are salted paper prints (positives from calotype negatives). Well represented are the masters of calotype portraiture, Robert Adamson and D. O. Hill, whose work was regarded at the time as photography's most artistic achievement. The Museum's specimens are typical of their elegant style of composition, pose, and lighting. The early portrait of Sir David Brewster may have been taken by Adamson before his association with Hill. Important too are the portrait by Nicolaas Henneman of the painter William Henry Hunt, perhaps intended as a sketch for a self-portrait; and that of the chemist Benjamin Collins Brodie jnr., an example of the work of Nevil Story-Maskelyne. The oldest items in the display are the pair of calotypes taken in Oxford on July 30, 1842, by the inventory of the process, W. H. Fox Talbot. Almost as old are the small prints of the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, by Charles Piazzi Smyth, the earliest photographs to have been taken in South Africa.

HISTORY The calotype was invented by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) in September 1840, a refinement of his original photogenic drawing, using the latent image phenomenon to give a much more sensitive negative process. The accelerating quality of gallic acid was pointed out during 1839 by Reade. Talbot realised that it was also a developer. He patented his new process on February 8, 1841, and described it to the Royal Society of London on June 10. The calotype or 'talbotype' now offered the chief alternative to the daguerreotype. It was never remotely competitive in the commercial arena, but was more attractive to amateurs, artists, and scientists, who widely adopted it. Several photographers nevertheless used it in fashionable portrait studios, the first being the miniaturist Collen; and it was the basis of Talbot's own photographic business at Reading, established in 1843 under Henneman, which concentrated on the multiple production of positives (salted paper prints) and the supply of prepared papers. Henneman moved to London in 1847, and one of his influential clients was William Henry Hunt [see illustration]. In Scotland the process was championed by Brewster, and Robert Adamson established a calotype studio in Edinburgh in May 1843, soon afterwards entering his famous partnership with the painter Hill.

French progress after the early 1840s was based upon the calotype rather than the daguerreotype. The pioneer Bayard preferred it to his own inventions; Blanquart-Evrard adopted it in 1844, and began experiments which led to his invention of albumen paper prints in 1850; and Blanquart-Evrard's improved calotype was used from 1847 by most non-commercial French photographers. Le Gray regarded it as the fertile ground for both technical and artistic advancement. His waxed paper process, invented in 1851, extended the life of paper negatives into the 1870s. Otherwise, the first-generation processes were extinct by the 1850s, the calotype and salted paper print having given way to their own offspring - the wet collodion glass negative and the albumen print.

SCIENCE The caltoype is supported on best quality writing or drawing paper, generally that manufactured by Whatman. The paper was brushed with a solution of silver nitrate, dried, and immersed in a solution of potassium iodide, forming light-sensitive silver iodide. Immediately before use the surface was treated with 'gallo-nitrate of silver' (a mixture of silver nitrate solution and gallic acid). Exposure in a photographic camera produced a latent (invisible) image. This was developed by washing with gallo-nitrate of silver. The paper was then washed in water, fixed by immersion in 'hypo' (sodium thiosulphate), and thoroughly washed again. This negative properly speaking is the calotype. Its translucency was mostly improved by waxing. A positive contact image could be made from it by the same latent image process, but was usually done by 'printing out' in much the same way as making a photogenic drawing. The same quality of paper, treated with common salt and silver nitrate, was exposed in contact with the negative in a special printing frame, the image appearing slowly. In addition to washing and fixing, it was sometimes toned, for instance with gold chloride solution (giving a purplish tone). The result is a 'salted paper print'. In the ' waxed paper negative' the paper had pure wax (candle wax) rubbed into it first, was soaked in an iodising solution made from several ingredients, and sensitised with silver nitrate immediately before exposure. The image was developed in gallic acid, and fixed in hypo. The result is virtually indistinguishable from a calotype that has been waxed.

Calotypes were exposed in a dark slide (a wooden holder) fitted into an appropriate camera, the first such being the refined form of camera obscura which Talbot was using around 1840. Evolved from this, the large sliding box camera was the standard instrument for most of the 1840s and '50s, equipped with Petzal's photographic lens and its imitators. No established paper sizes existed at first, but the daguerreotype full plate (8 ½ x 6 ½ inches) eventually became the standard for all photography.

ART The calotype and salted paper print have images of a brownish colour contained in the upper fibres of the paper. The effect is reminiscent of a mezzotint, and etching, a dense lithograph, or an ink and wash drawing; and these are the conceptual and cultural background against which the calotype was invented, judged, and used. The early photographers were inescapably influenced by the dominant means of indirect perception hitherto, and the calotype looked like the ideal addition or even successor to the established repertoire of print processes. It too produced multiple copies, and they were termed 'prints' (or 'proofs') from this analogy. A process on paper was certainly what people expected of photography. So although lacking the market that existed for the daguerreotype as a popular artefact, the calotype had greater appear to artists and amateurs; was more useful, for instance in book illustration; and soon demonstrated its potential not only for technical development but for stylistic individuality and creative expression.

The pictorial possibilities of the calotype were explored in Talbot's own photographs, and discussed by him in The Pencil of Nature (1844-46). His vision is still a challenging force in the debate about whether photography should be regarded as an art form. Some painters, notably Le Gray and Le Secq, and even the scientist Regnault, used the calotype as an artistic medium, and produced exquisite work. Hill and Adamson adapted the conventions of portrait painting into a uniquely photographic style, using the colour and tonal range, sensitivity to lighting effects, and softness of image characteristic of the uncoated paper processes [see illustration]. The partnership began in order to provide Hill with 'sketches' for a huge group portrait; but it was the photographs which drew critical acclaim. They were frequently compared to the paintings and etchings of Rembrandt, and have ever since been regarded as the artistic masterpieces of photography's first generation.

[From the exhibition booklet Photography 150: Images from the First Generation (Oxford: Museum of the History of Science, 1989)]

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