The world was not quite ready when William Henry Fox Talbot announced in London on January 31, 1839 that he had invented "photogenic drawings." Many thought the strange, fuzzy little images derived from watercolor, lithography, or mezzotint engraving, failing to perceive them as the wondrous workings of nature that Talbot saw. Even after vastly improving exposure time, image readability, and permanence, and discovering latent image development (which Talbot officially introduced and patented in 1841 as the calotype process), he met with an unsupportive government and an indifferent public. Most were instead bedazzled by the astonishing veracity of detail produced by the daguerreotype (a process unveiled in France on January 7, 1839 and given to that nation under government auspices), and remained less than enthused with the calotype. Lack of familiarity stemmed largely from Talbot's restrictive patent, but lack of excitement had more to do with the public's preference for scientific verisimilitude over picturesque chiaroscuro. Even Talbot's dear friend and scientific colleague Sir John Herschel, whose prolific correspondence provided constant support and encouragement, conceded that daguerreotypes "surpass anything I could have conceived as within the bounds of reasonable expectation....In scenes of great detail, every letter in distant inscriptions—every chip in the corner of every stone in every building is reproduced and distinctly recognizable with a strong lens....Excuse this exultation."1
Though distressed, Talbot remained undaunted, believing that his invention had simply been "misapprehended."2 He set about publicizing in newspapers and journals, and demonstrated the calotype (on a modest scale) in Italy, Germany, and Scotland. Rather than bemoaning the suffused tones of the calotype, Talbot emphasized the medium's artistic possibilities, especially its potential for mass reproduction and book illustration.
Talbot first got the idea for a book about cathedrals in 1842. Setting off to France the following year with his ex-valet and assistant Nicolaas Henneman, Talbot photographed structures in Paris, Rouen, Chambord, and Orléans. Though poor weather conditions and uncooperative city officials hampered his efforts, he met with unexpected success in Orléans and in June made this image's negative of the cathedral. Lugging camera and chemicals to the top of the church, Talbot positioned himself across from a tower, using a long focus lens that flattened space and emphasized the Gothic tracery. Successfully capturing the delicate play of light, Talbot presented the structure as not so much a massive church as an ethereal screen of curves and patterns.
(Text by April Watson, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
1. Letter from Herschel to Talbot dated in Paris May 9, 1839. Reproduced in part in Gail Buckland, Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography (Boston, 1980), 53–54.
2. Talbot used the term in a notice to the public that accompanied an explanation of his calotype process, published in The Art Union of June 1846. See Mark Haworth-Booth, The Golden Age of British Photography (New York, 1984), 32 (note 1).
by later hand, lower left verso in black ink: LA784
Charles Isaacs Photographs, Malvern, PA; purchased with donated funds by NGA, 1998.
- Photographs from the Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1999.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2000-2001.
- Buckland, Gail. Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography. Boston, 1980: p. 150 (upper).
- Schaaf, Larry J. Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot, & the Investion of Photography. New Haven, 1992: p. 135, fig. 86.