Talbot’s correspondence

Monday 13 October 2003

William Henry Fox Talbot was a philosopher, classicist, Egyptologist, mathematician, philologist, transcriber and translator of Syrian and Chaldean cuneiform texts, physicist, and photographer. The work that he did between 1834 and 1850 established in principle and practice the foundation of modern photography; the basis of the process that is used today. [Fox Talbot Museum]. On 1 November 1851 Talbot wrote to the committee organising the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London:

Gentlemen, I am desirous if it meets with your approbation to have an interview with the members of the Executive Committee which more particularly represents Chemical Science in it Dr Playfair — respecting the best means of producing the photographic pictures destined for your Work on the Crystal Palace. I have reason to think that you have chiefly considered hitherto the cost of producing the positive copies by one method or another. But it appears to me that this is a Subordinate consideration. This work is I understand destined to be sent to various Museums and distinguished individuals on the Continent as well as to the fortunate holders of the Council Medals. Now it is of the greatest possible consequence, that the pictures should be so thoroughly fixed, as to remain permanent if possible for centuries to come. It would be a great mortification to all parties concerned if at the expiration of a few years a considerable portion of the work should be found to have faded and perished. The experience of more than fifteen years has shown me how difficult and delicate a thing is the fixation of the positive photograph. If carelessly performed, the evil shows itself in a month or less. If with some, but only a moderate degree of care, the pictures will sometimes last well for a whole year and fade away during the second. The mischief is chiefly owing I believe to a small remnant of sulphur (derived from the hyposulphite of soda) left in combination with the silver which gradually changes it into a pale coloured sulphuret. About two years ago Mr Malone invented a process for remedying this of which I thought so well that I assisted him to take a patent for it, It consists in dipping the picture in boiling caustic potash, to remove the sulphur, which does not at all injure the picture in other respects, although such injury might seem a priori probable. This process of Mr Malone’s if approved of by the Executive Committee they would be very welcome to adopt it. I am informed that Liebig, Mitscherlich and other distinguished Chemists have expressed their approbation of it. What I should recommend is that two Chemists should be appointed, to control and supervise the performance of a work of such magnitude and importance. That no picture should be inserted in the Work that has not been passed by them that is certified as having undergone all the requisite processes — There is unfortunately no means of discovering whether a picture is fixed, except the test of time — This renders it very important that responsible persons should watch over the whole process from first to last.

This is one of nearly 10,000 letters to and from Talbot that have been transcribed and made available on the web through the University of Glasgow. It’s a wonderful tool for scholarship, and a credit to the project director, Dr Larry Schaaf, and his colleagues. Even if you aren’t interested in photographic history you should have a look. Postscript, 14 May 2006: The website is now being hosted by DeMontfort University in Leicester, and new material is being added. I have updated the link above.

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