Photogenic Drawings

In 1834, five years before the invention of photography was publicly announced, William Henry Fox Talbot, the English inventor, botanist, and amateur artist, began to experiment with the idea of recording the natural scene onto a surface. Talbot’s contributions laid the foundation for the negative-to-positive process from which most nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographs were derived. 
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“Two Leaves,” William Henry Fox Talbot, Photogenic drawing, 1839, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Talbot’s early attempts included images he made without a camera, which he called photogenic drawings, meaning drawings produced by light. In general, the process involved sensitizing writing paper by dipping it in a solution of sodium chloride and coating one side with silver nitrate, a compound which quickly turns dark when exposed to sunlight. An impression of an object was then made by placing it on the sensitized side of the paper and exposing it to the sun. In the resulting image, the exposed background areas appeared dark and the shadow left by the subject appeared light. The image was then stabilized with a salt solution, but not fixed. The technique, known as a printed out process, brought out the image through the action of light (rather than through the use of chemicals). Talbot often recorded objects with delicate, intricate patterns such as botanical specimens or lace.