Visiting The Birthplace of the Photographic Negative

Most photographers today realize that their digital cameras are direct descendants of film cameras. In 2021, we are finding that the renewed interest in film photography has dispelled the myth that “Film is “Dead”. In fact film photography is alive and well, with photo enthusiasts of all ages embracing the use of film for making images. Today we call the first steps to producing a photograph capturing the image. The basic concept is the same for digital media or film. Light enters our camera and is recorded digitally or on celluloid strips called film. On film this process can produce a negative or positive image, depending on the type of film. The digital process is complicated, but in essence produces a positive image.
Have you ever wondered how this process of making a photograph on film got started?

In 1835, William Henry Fox Talbot was hard at work trying to figure out how to preserve the images he was seeing using a draftsman’s aid, called camera lucida. This aid was used to project a refracted image on paper so an artist could trace and make drawings of the projected image. The quality of these images depended on the skill of the artist. A good draftsman or artist would find this process useful, while an unskilled person would would become frustrated. Such was the case with William Henry Fox Talbot. Talbot longed for some method of preserving the projected image he was seeing on his sketch paper.
Talbot was a true polymath. His intellectual curiosity embraced the fields of mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and botany; philosophy and philology; Egyptology, the classics, and art history. He had published four books and twenty-seven scholarly articles on a variety of subjects and was a fellow of the Astronomical, Linnean, and Royal Societies. Now in the mid 1800’s he would turn his intellectual curiosity towards the idea of creating what we now call a photographic negative.

William Henry Fox Talbot, 1864
William Henry Fox Talbot, 1864. John Moffat. Carbon print, printed 1948 by Harold White. George Eastman Museum, gift of Mrs. Alden Scott Boyer.

In october of 2013 I visited the birthplace of the photographic negative, Lacock Abbey in the village of Lacock, Wiltshire, England with Hilary Roberts, research curator of photography at the Imperial War Museum in London, England.

Lacock Abbey, Fox Talbot Museum.

One of the highlights for me was to be able to stand in the exact location where the oldest surviving negative was made.
In 1834, Talbot invented a process which produced ‘negative’ images on light-sensitive paper. A negative could then be used to create multiple ‘positive’ photographs by contact printing. Taken in August 1835 The Latticed Window is the earliest known surviving photographic negative.

The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey, probably 1835
William Henry Fox Talbot The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey, probably 1835. Photogenic drawing negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee and Anonymous Gifts, 1997 (1997.382.1)

When I edited the image below of The Latticed Window in 2021, I wanted to use the technology available today, but I wanted to be true to my original vision from 2013. Hence, I made the image monochrome, and added a slight tint.

Latticed window at Lacock Abbey, 2013, by Lee Craker
Latticed window at Lacock Abbey, 2013, by Lee Craker

As I was touring Lacock Abbey, I found a couple making a portrait with a smartphone.

Wood Carving Detail, Lacock Abbey, England.

In the image below I found a man reading in one of the rooms at Lacock Abbey

Man Reading at Lacock Abbey, England

Lacock Food Store, England.

Used Boxing Gloves, Lacock, England.

Boxing Gloves at Lacock Emporium, Lacock, England

You can license my images here: https://lee-craker.pixels.com/


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