Historical Processes: The Salted Paper Print

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Historical Processes: The Salted Paper Print

William Henry Fox Talbot was no artist. While on his honeymoon in Italy, the English inventor famously attempted sketches with the aid of a camera lucida, a drawing device used by travelers to record landscape views. His confession of failure has become legendary in histories of photography:

One of the first days of the month of October 1833, I was amusing myself on the lovely shores of the Lake of Como, in Italy, taking sketches with Wallaston's camera lucida, or rather I should say, attempting to take them: but with the smallest possible amount of success. For when the eye was removed from the prism–in which all looked beautiful–I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold. After various fruitless attempts, I laid aside the instrument and came to the conclusion, that its use required a previous knowledge of drawing, which unfortunately I did not possess.

Above Image: William Henry Fox Talbot, The Reading Establishment, salted paper print, 1846

Upon returning home, Talbot resolved to find a way to produce images by “optical and chemical means alone, without the aid of any one acquainted with art or drawing.” Experimenting with drawing paper sensitized by salt and silver nitrate, he first developed what he called photogenic drawings. These were images created by sandwiching relatively flat objects between a sheet of sensitized paper and a pane of glass before exposure to sunlight. He discovered that this printing-out process could be stopped by washing the print in a salt solution.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Wrack, photogenic drawing, 1839
William Henry Fox Talbot, Wrack, photogenic drawing, 1839

To create photographic views, Talbot began experimenting with another optical tool: the camera obscura. Literally “dark room” in Latin, camera obscura took many forms, but all rely on the physical properties of light as it passes through an aperture into a dark space, forming an inverted image of the scene on the other side. Talbot sought to arrest this image by focusing the incoming light onto a sheet of sensitized paper. Compared to photogenic drawings exposed to full sun, the amount of light entering the camera was miniscule, requiring long exposure times to produce adequate results. Consequently, the process was best suited for still life and architectural compositions.

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey, paper negative, c. 1835
William Henry Fox Talbot, The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey, paper negative, c. 1835

Early on in his experiments, Talbot realized that placing his prints in a strong salt solution could stop the development process. However, the resulting images were still prone to fading when viewed in the light. In 1839, British scientist Sir John Herschel shared with Talbot his discovery that hyposulphite of soda (sodium thiosulfate) acts as a solvent of silver nitrate, providing a means for fixing images permanently. In 1841 Talbot patented his invention, naming the fruits of his labor calotypes, a conjoining of the Greek kalos (beautiful) and tupus (impression). Following in the footsteps of Daguerre, they were sometimes also called talbotypes. Collectively, Talbot’s work stands as the earliest examples of salted paper prints.

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Ladder, calotype, c. 1844
William Henry Fox Talbot, The Ladder, calotype, c. 1844

Calotypes served as the first negative-positive photographic printing process. In contrast to the unique character of the daguerreotype, Talbot’s inventions permitted the reproduction of multiple prints from a single negative. This important difference had a profound effect on the reach of photographic images in the 19th century.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Lace, calotype, c. 1844
William Henry Fox Talbot, Lace, calotype, c. 1844
William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, 1844-6
William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, 1844-6

Between 1844 and 1846, Talbot produced the first commercial photo book project, The Pencil of Nature, a six-volume series containing a total of twenty-four salted paper prints accompanied by musings on the potential uses to which his invention could be put: “The chief object of the present work is to place on record some of the early beginnings of a new art, before the period, which we trust is approaching, of its being brought to maturity by the aid of British talent.” The Pencil of Nature is impressive for its prescience. Throughout the volumes, Talbot pitches photography as a tool for producing portraits, genre scenes, still life compositions, architectural studies, legal evidence, copies of documents, and scientific representation among other uses.

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Newhaven Fishwives, salted paper print, c. 1845
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Newhaven Fishwives, salted...
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Newhaven Fishermen, salted paper print, 1843-7
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Newhaven Fishermen, salted...

Calotype studios first emerged in Great Britain and later gained traction in artist circles across Europe. While daguerreotypes were admired for their exacting detail, the softer character of the calotype process encouraged poetic interpretation. Among the most enduring examples of the period come from the partnership of Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill, in Edinburgh. Upon being commissioned to paint an enormous group portrait depicting the four hundred and fifty clergyman who walked out of the Church of Scotland during the Disruption Assembly of 1843, Hill approached Adamson to make reference photographs for his painting. So began a collaboration that would exceed its original premise, producing more than three thousand negatives, and a body of work cherished for transforming individual sitters into archetypes of a seaside community.

Gustave Le Gray, Oak Tree and Rocks, Forest of Fontainebleau, salted paper print, 1849-52
Gustave Le Gray, Oak Tree and Rocks, Forest of Fontainebleau, salted paper print, 1849-52

Talbot’s process was tweaked and refined by other photographers almost as soon as licenses were made available for purchase. In Paris, Gustave Le Gray led the charge, serving as practitioner, innovator, and educator to a generation of budding photographers. Le Gray improved Talbot’s paper negatives by incorporating wax into the sensitization process, resulting in more detailed images. Le Gray’s association with the Barbizon school of painters informed his compositions of the iconic forest of Fontainebleau.

In addition to artistic expressions, calotypes were put to use documenting architecture and landscapes at home and abroad. Quickly books of photographs of Egypt, Jerusalem, and Syria filled parlor rooms, sparking the imaginations of European audiences. Nevertheless, the popularity of calotypes was short-lived. In 1847, Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, a daguerreotypist and calotypist working in Paris, invented the albumen silver print. Offering a means of relaying considerably more detail on paper prints, his invention would quickly replace the calotype as the leading paper process.

Félix Teynard, Abo-Sembil, Grand Spéos, Statues Colossales vues de Face (Parte Inférieure), salted paper print, 1851–52
Félix Teynard, Abo-Sembil, Grand Spéos, Statues Colossales vues de...
Auguste Salzmann, Jérusalem, Beit-Lehem, Vue générale, salted paper print, 1854
Auguste Salzmann, Jérusalem, Beit-Lehem, Vue générale, salted paper...

An updated version of the salted paper print process is available via the Photographers’ Formulary Salted (Plain) Paper Kit. While the chemicals differ from those used by Talbot, if you are looking to create prints that recall the aesthetic of the artists above, it is worth checking out.

To read about more great classic cameras, click here.

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