An ordinary inability can sometimes lead to great things. Born into an aristocratic English family at the turn of the nineteenth century, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800－1877) may have lacked talent for drawing, but he was destined to invent the negative-positive photographic process. His frustration at being unable to draw gave him the idea of constructing a “drawing machine,” a major invention suggested by observing an altogether commonplace phenomenon. While vacationing with his wife Constance at Lake Como in the fall of 1833, he noticed how the Italian sun burned his skin and realized that “sunlight works changes upon material substance.”
This simple observation suggested that he might be able to photosensitize paper with silver nitrate, a substance known to change properties when exposed to light. At first he merely transferred plant shapes directly onto photosensitive paper, but soon he began experimenting with putting the paper into a camera obscura. Naturally, his first attempts all yielded negatives, but even those surprising silhouettes sufficed to spur Fox Talbot’s curiosity. To look at Fox Talbot’s earliest experiments, the blurred and hazy images suffuse the excited anticipation of discovering how light could transfer the shape of things onto paper. Therein we may discern some ancient occult ritualistic aura, as if one could commune with the spirits of the dead. Starting from 1834, until he announced his calotype process in 1841, the more he perfected his technique, the better the picture quality becomes and the less mystical the images appear. It was only from the latter half of the 1840s that he succeeded in making positive images in any quantity.
I decided to collect Fox Talbot’s earliest negatives, from a time in photographic history very likely before positive images existed, and print the photographs that not even he saw. Most early Fox Talbot negatives languish in dark museum collection vaults, hidden from public view. Negatives predating any reliable method of fixing the image are always in danger of changing if exposed to the slightest light. I, however, had to take that risk to return to the very origins of photography and see those first positive images for myself. With fear and trepidation, I set about this task like an archaeological explorer excavating an ancient dynastic tomb.
- Hiroshi Sugimoto