History Lesson: The Calotype and the Dawn of the Paper Processes (pt. III)

Written by Gregg McNeill. 

In this series, we explore the history of photography in terms of image-making methods and various technologies available to photographers at different periods of time. In part one, we explored the origins of the very first photographIn part two, we explored the rise of the Daguerreotype and the popularization of photography.

In 1839, Louis Daguerre was pronounced ‘The Inventor of Photography’. This did not sit well with many others, Nicéphore Niépce’s son, Isidore, for one. He was furious that his father’s work wasn’t even mentioned by Daguerre and spent the rest of his life telling anyone who would listen that it was, in fact, his father, who really invented photography.

There were several other people working simultaneously and independently of each other to perfect a fixed photographic image.

Julia_Margaret_Cameron - John Herschel April, 1867.jpg
Julia Margaret Cameron – John Herschel April, 1867

In 1819, the polymath scientist, Sir John Herschel discovered that hyposulfite of soda (now known as sodium thiosulfate, or “hypo”, common photographic fixer) dissolved silver salts.

Herschel discovered what would become the platinum printing process in 1832, based on his research of the light sensitivity of platinum salts. Around this same time, he also invented other lesser-known photographic processes such as The Chrysotype using colloidal gold as a means of creating an image and the Anthotype (also known as Phytotype) process that used photosensitive material from plants.

In 1839, he shared his sodium thiosulfate discovery with both Louis Daguerre and his friend William Henry Fox Talbot, giving a solution to the vexing problem of stabilizing photographic images to permanence.

Also in 1839, Herschel produced the first photograph on glass. This photo depicted his father’s telescope in Slough, near London. Herschel’s other contributions to photography include coining the term Photography and he was the first person to apply the terms Positive and Negative to photography.

Herschel Telescope First Photograph on Glass, 3 September, 1839
Herschel Telescope First Photograph on Glass, 3 September, 1839

In 1842, Herschel invented the Cyanotype process as a way to reproduce notes and diagrams. (This process was used well into the 20th century for engineering and architectural blueprints.). Cyanotypes have an interesting characteristic in that they will fade under prolonged exposure to sunlight but can often be regenerated by placing them in darkness for a while.

In 1843, Botanist and Photographer Anna Atkins used this technique to produce a book of Cyanotype photograms (objects placed directly onto sensitized paper and exposed leaving a negative impression) called, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

Anna_Atkins_algae_cyanotype 1843
Anna Atkins, Algae Cyanotype, 1843

In May 1839, three months before the big announcement of Daguerre’s invention, a clerk in the French Ministry of Finance, named Hippolyte Bayard, had shown French physicist (and director of the Paris Observatory), Dominique François Arago his own photographic images made with a positive paper process. He had sensitized paper with Silver chloride and inserted the wet paper into his camera for exposure; the paper was then developed out in potassium iodide to yield a positive image. This image was fixed with potassium bromide. Bayard was given a small pension to keep quiet about his process. His photograph, Self Portrait as a Drowned Man is widely considered the very first political protest photograph.

Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, Hippolyte Bayard, 1840, Courtesy of Societé Francais de la Photographie and the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY
Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, Hippolyte Bayard, 1840, Courtesy of Societé Français de la Photographie and the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY

Upon hearing the announcement of Daguerre’s invention, an Englishman named William Henry Fox Talbot rushed to The Royal Institution on January 29th to proclaim that he had been working on a photographic process he called Photogenic Drawing, since 1834, presenting several images he had made. Two weeks later he presented his process to The Royal Society. Talbot’s process couldn’t have been more different, however.

John Moffat, William Henry Fox Talbot With Camera and lens, 1864

(Right: John Moffat, William Henry Fox Talbot With Camera and Lens, 1864) 

Talbot’s Salted Paper or Photogenic Drawing process used fine-grained writing paper sensitized with a weak silver chloride solution, then brushed with a strong solution of silver nitrate. This created a coating of silver chloride, which darkened when exposed to light. The exposure times were often an hour or two for this process, producing a paper negative. This is referred to as a “Printing Out” process, meaning that the image is fully visible when the exposure is completed. (This is different from a “Developing Out” process where the latent exposed image is invisible until it is developed. Daguerreotypes are a developing out process.)

What was so revolutionary about Talbot’s process was that photographs were now easily reproducible. To copy a Daguerreotype, you had to re-photograph it. By contrast, with a paper negative, the process was fairly simple. First, you would wax the paper negative to make it translucent. Second, you would place the waxed paper negative on top of a piece of sensitized paper and place that into a contact frame. This frame was placed out in sunlight to expose.  Once the image was developed to satisfaction, it was processed as normal.

In 1841, Talbot perfected his Calotype process (sometimes referred to as Talbotype). The term Calotype comes from the Greek καλός (kalos), “beautiful”, and τύπος (tupos), “impression”.

WHF Talbot The Open Door (wide shadow) April, 1844
W.H.F. Talbot, The Open Door (Wide Shadow) April, 1844

This was a developing out process using silver iodide. The Calotype Process brought exposure times down from hours to a few minutes in bright sun. The process starts with brushing a high quality writing paper with silver nitrate and allowed to dry. The paper is then soaked in potassium iodide (This formed silver iodide on the paper) and allowed to dry again. When the paper was needed, the silver iodide paper was brushed with “gallo-nitrate of silver” (silver nitrate, acetic acid and gallic acid) and placed in a dark slide to be exposed. The latent image was developed by washing the negative in gallo-nitrate of silver and then stabilized by either a rinse of potassium bromide or fixed in a hot solution of sodium thiosulfate.

Contemporary Calotypists are using several different methods to make their images. Each method has its followers and my research has shown that this process is not easy, but once mastered, produces beautiful pictures. Looking at the Flickr gallery of The Calotype Society you can see the potential of the process.


(Left: Edinburgh Calotype Club, Maitland Montgomery Tennent)

The Calotype is a very different image from the Daguerreotype. The Calotype is a paper process, so the grain and texture of the paper become part of the image, lessening detail and giving the overall image a more painterly quality. This was seen as much more desirable for portraits and artistic landscapes. Because of this, Talbot is often seen as the first photographic artist. His monograph called The Pencil of Nature is regarded as the “first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published”. It was published in instalments and contains his own account of the invention of the Calotype process; as well as several insights into the making of images and their use outside of being pieces of art. You can view and search Talbot’s vast collection of Calotype negatives and prints here.

The_Pencil_of_Nature cover
The Pencil Of Nature cover

The United Kingdom and Scotland, in particular, was a locus for Calotype photography. The Edinburgh Calotype Club, founded in 1842, was the world’s first photography society. They had many distinguished members and their body of work, Pencils of Light, is still available to view, in person, at The National Library of Scotland.

The Calotype studio of Hill and Adamson at Rock House in Edinburgh, produced some of the first social documentary photography with their images of the fisherfolk of Newhaven. The work of Hill and Adamson can be seen at The National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

Hill and Adamson Fisherman and boys 1843 (right: Hill and Adamson Fisherman and boys 1843)

Many historians believe that the invention of the Calotype marks the real birth of Photography in the mainstream consciousness. It’s repeatability and relative ease to produce (when compared to Daguerreotypes) and the overall mass appeal of the images themselves really brough photography to the masses. There was, however, still a desire for the amazing detail of the Daguerreotype and that is where Fredrick Scott Archer came in.

Next up:  Wet Plate Collodion: The Precursor of Film


Talbot, William Henry Fox. Pencil of Nature Published by Longman, Green and Longmans, London 1844


William Henry Fox Talbot Collection http://foxtalbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/search









Hunt, Robert. A Manual of Photography Published by John Griffin & Co. Glasgow 1853





James, Christopher. The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes. Cengage Learning, 2016.

Atkins, Anna (1985). Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms. With text by Larry J. Schaaf. New York: Aperture. ISBN 0-89381-203-X.