Masterworks — The American Museum of Photography
William Henry Fox Talbot (England, 1800–1877): The Footman.
Calotype, 6-3/8″ x 8-1/4″
October 14, 1840
The earliest photograph of a human figure on paper
Talbot, one of the inventors of photography, produced the first negatives on paper as early as 1834. He published his negative-positive process in 1839, but the materials were too slow and exposure times were too long to permit the photography of human beings (or anything else that moved). On September 23, 1840, Talbot invented the calotype process which worked by developing the latent image of a briefer exposure. On October 10, the inventor used this new process to make a small experimental portrait of his wife, Constance. Four days later, this first important calotype composition was executed. The negative was made in three minutes, according to a notation on another print that Talbot sent to Sir John Herschel (a print now in the Gernsheim Collection at the University of Texas.)
The print shown here is on paper bearing the watermark “J. Whatman 1839.” Its delicate tones of pink and mauve indicate it was stabilized with common salt rather than fixed with the “hypo” solution discovered by Herschel (and later universally adopted.) The image is kept in the dark and viewed only in subdued light.
In Sun Pictures Catalogue Three (New York, H. P. Kraus, Jr., Inc., 1988), photographic historian Larry J. Schaaf observes:
Talbot had recently been elected Sheriff of Wiltshire, and the magnificent livery of his footman was seen as an important way of expressing his status. Based solely on aesthetic and documentary appeal, this calotype is an impressive part of Talbot’s oevre. The Footman takes on added significance, however, when we realize that it was made… just three weeks after Talbot had discovered his new process.
- Larrry J. Schaaf, The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot (Princeton University Press: 2000) pp. 98-99.
- H. Gernsheim, “Talbot’s and Herschel’s Photographic Experiments in 1839,” Image, vol. 8, 1959, pp. 132-134
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