From Fox Talbot to selfies: Looking at photography through a 19th-century lens

In an age saturated with photographs like a damp bathroom mat, it is difficult to imagine a world without the instantaneous capture and dissemination of images. Selfies are ubiquitous, as is the pointing, shooting and posting of holidays, workouts, love lives and hot dinners.

From Fox Talbot to selfies: Looking at photography through a 19th-century lens

But photography wasn’t always a common medium. Long before Instagram, before Polaroid and even before newspaper photography, the photographic process was the territory of a small handful of inventors. One of these was the 19th century-British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot – the subject of a new exhibition at the Science Museum in London.

Fox Talbot, described by the museum as “the father of photography”, was an early figurehead in the medium. He invented the negative-positive process, which would form the basis of photography for over 150 years.


(Exhibition co-curators Greg Hobson – in the blue jumper – and Russell Roberts)

“Photography, without question, was one of the most profound inventions of 19th-century Britain,” says Russell Roberts, exhibition co-curator and reader in Photography at the University of South Wales. “Talbot not only set in motion a new way of seeing but, through his writings and experiments, identified the distinctiveness of photography as an art, science and industry.”

The exhibition spans Fox Talbot’s early experiments to his later commercial use of photography, including his 1839 book

The Pencil of Nature – the first commercial publication to be illustrated using photographs. The show culminates in a room dedicated to the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was one of the first times a large audience was exposed to the results of photography.

Staying and fading 

One of the main themes across the exhibition is the tension between permanence and impermanence. Fox Talbot and his contemporaries were keen to stop their images from fading –literally – an aspect of photography that has been lost in the digital age. Might the delicacy and transience of physical photography take on new significance in the eyes of a 21st-century audience, accustomed to taking pictures with little more than a few swipes?

“Well, the transience now is different, isn’t it?” says Roberts. “Everyone’s quite happy to constantly document what they’re eating, who they’re with, and disseminate that through social media. So, the fleetingness is more naturalised, I suppose.

“It’s less of an issue about image permanence. It’s more an issue of, ‘Here I am, I’m sharing this moment with you and it’s instantaneous.’ That fading has a different set of values.”fox_talbot_2

The threat of fading images was very real for mid-19th-century photographers, so there is a thrill to seeing the results of their work, captured behind protective glass. Glancing over the buildings, trees and figures stuck in time, it feels as if you are peering into the past. In one of the pictures, a clocktower, that of the entrance gateway at Queen’s College in Oxford, is captured. It is trapped for ever at 2.10pm on 9 April 1843.

Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph runs from 14 April to 11 September at the Science Museum in London. More details can be found here.

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