Photography invented by British not French, Bodleian Library exhibition claims

Photography invented by British not French, Bodleian Library exhibition claims

© Hulton Archive
William Henry Fox Talbot, considered to be the true inventor of photography, at his studio – Hulton Archive

Photography was invented by an Englishman from Dorset, not a Frenchman, who was previously thought of as the father of photography, Bodleian Library exhibition has claimed.

The Bright Sparks exhibition, which opens on Friday, has waded into a long-running debate over who first mastered the medium.

It contends that while French inventor Louis Daguerre is often seen as the father of the photograph, it was in fact Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot who made the first and most significant breakthroughs.

© Provided by The Telegraph
William Henry Fox Talbot is recognised to have produced the first negative

Mr Daguerre developed a chemical process to produce ‘daguerreotypes’ in the 1840s, a rudimentary form of photography that became popular across France in the following years.

However, the new exhibition lays out how it was Mr Talbot’s intervention to produce the first negative in the 1830s which was the most significant step forward, and allowed photographs to be reproduced multiple times.

“Fox Talbot did invent photography, we can say that, but while his claim is as strong as anyone else’s, what he alone really gave to photography is the idea of the negative, the reverse image, used to create more prints,” Phillip Roberts, curator of photography at the Bodleian Library, told The Guardian.

John Hannavy, a photography historian and academic, told The Telegraph that he was surprised that there was any question or doubt over who invented photography.

He said: “He invented the idea of the ‘negative’ from which countless prints could be made, and his earliest negative was made in 1835.

© Provided by The Telegraph
One of the early photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot, which is of a man seated beneath an ash tree in Ugbrooke Park, Devon

“He wrote a note alongside what we now believe to be his earliest surviving negative – made in August 1835 – drawing attention to one of the many features of photography which all Victorians would have found especially remarkable.

“That unique characteristic was the camera’s ability to miniaturise without sacrificing detail, the one immediately obvious distinction between photography and painting.”

Putting name to invention

However, unlike Mr Daguerre who went on to put his name on his invention, Mr Talbot, whose images became known as calotypes, opted not to. 

His work in developing photographic techniques went far beyond these initial inventions too, with the rest of his life spent developing photographic technology and techniques.

The exhibition will display these early calotype experiments as well as the British inventor’s whole archive, including examples of his early attempts at making images using a glass electric discharge wand.

The exhibition will also showcase how Talbot’s work has inspired future artists, alongside photography works from other notable contemporary photographers such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, Martin Parr and Alison Rossiter, as well as ones from the past Julia Margaret Cameron.

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