William Henry Fox Talbot – Lace Imprinting its own Picture.

Lace, Plate XX

William Henry Fox Talbot, Lace, Plate XX, First published in The Pencil of Nature, 1844.

Scientific innovation and the knowledge of William Henry Fox Talbot’s fastidious photographic inventory of his possessions qualifies his place as one of my favourite photographers. His photographs in The Pencil of Nature, not only establish his ability to compose a picture but also chronicle the scope of what the camera was capable of. (1)

In The Magic Image, Fox Talbot is described as “a man blessed with an unusual imagination, uncommon knowledge and a wide range of interests.” (2) Fox Talbot’s technique produced a paper negative; at first, although mottled and not as defined as the Daguerreotype, it was a superior process because copies could be made. Aaron Scharf describes the poetic elements of the paper negative process, the “… fibrous structure of the negative… softening all contours of the image, diffusing the light, and imbuing all forms with a suggestive power.” (3) Later Fox Talbot refined his technique by replacing the paper supporting the negative emulsion with glass plates coated with collodion, he named it “the calotype process.” In 1840 by rendering silver chloride crystals to silver by chemical means, Fox Talbot further revolutionized photography with reduced exposure times.

“He called the hidden, invisible images “latent.” (4) Suggesting that the images existed but lay dormant until revealed by the chemical process. Geoffery Batchen writes of Talbot’s uncertain statements regarding photography’s “generative power.” (5) Talbot questions whether a photograph was the combination of camera and chemistry or “nature drawing its own picture.” (6)

The Pencil of Nature, was the first book illustrated with photographs and the first mass produced book. Beaumont Newhall describes the operation of the “Talbotype Establishment” which printed over 2000 paper negatives for the series in the sun, thus making it “the first mass production photofinishing laboratory in the world.” (7)

Lace, plate XX in The Pencil of Nature, is an example of a negative image. The lace was placed upon sensitized paper allowing an image to be “directly taken from the lace itself.” (8) It is this “touching” that appeals and the intricate detailed patterning of the lace. Charles Babbage, the English philosopher and mathematician, believed that Talbot’s lacework photograms were “mathematics made visible.” (9) Today we liken the patterns to the structure of cells & the pixelation of digital images.


1. C Beaton, G Buckland, The Magic Image, Little, Brown & Company, 1975, p. 35.

2. ibid., p.10.

3. A Scharf, Pioneers of Photography, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1975, p. 12.

4. W Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, Da Capo Press, New York, 1969, p. 4.

5. G Batchen, Each Wild Idea, Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2001, p. 166.

6. ibid.

7. Talbot, op.cit., p. 5.

8. ibid., Plate XX.

9. Batchen, op.cit., p. 169.


William Henry Fox Talbot http://www.google.com.au/imgres?imgurl=http://www.masters-of-photography.com/images/screen/talbot/talbot_lace.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.masters-of-photography.com/T/talbot/talbot_lace.html&h=275&w=330&sz=36&tbnid=WWGVECH1q9RHUM:&tbnh=96&tbnw=115&zoom=1&usg=__jj3pDLMlVvco8EoJiVvBxdRQ9HA=&docid=k-VQBbQuUTQn-M&sa=X&ei=jGwTUcX0OZCXiAftxYHwCg&ved=0CDIQ9QEwAA&dur=2599

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