The history of photography Civil War Photographs Brady and Gardner
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The Calotype: An Overview

Talbot’s The Open Door, a salted paper print from a calotype negative.

In my last history of photography article, I talked about William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the Calotype. Here, I want to explore how the calotype evolved within photography and how it evolved the photographic world.

In the 1840’s, Daguerreotypes were still hugely popular. Their “look” was unlike anything else, and society was not convinced of the calotype’s prowess. After all, it has not been politically vetted (Daguerre had received a pension and high honors from the state for his invention) and financial backing was lacking. Adding to the pressures, Talbot had established a patent on the process in 1841 which resulted in a high licensing fee to anyone wishing to make a calotype. The licensing was a detriment to the growth of popularity as only the more well-off could afford it. Talbot even partnered with Antoine Claudet in a daguerreotype portrait studio to offer the calotype option, but its’ performance was lackluster.

Compared to the daguerreotype, many people saw the calotypes differences as flaws. The process was slower. Chemicals weren’t regulated and often impure which lead to inconsistent results. That darn “fixing” of an image was still a problem, and prints often faded over time. Also, depending on the type of paper used, the texture of the paper could interfere with the image.

What people were slow to realize was how valuable the two-step process was and what it meant for replication purposes. These images were now, essentially, like printmaking, and brought an easily replicated methodology to photography.

Around this time, Romanticism was popular in the fine arts. Romanticism holds the emotional experience of the piece of art in the highest regard. It’s goal is to make you feel. The concept of beautiful was a goal, as was the concept of the sublime. Many artists portrayed these feelings through the use of delicate strokes, smooth and rounded. They played with the push and pull of light and shadow. They painted as if they were in a diffused light. Slowly, people began to realize that the calotype embodied much of the characteristics of Romanticism. The papers chosen forced a softer image (compared to the crispness of the daguerreotype), the limited tonal range able to be produced lent itself to portraying that play between light and shadow instead of dictating it in a razor sharp line. For the first time, people began considering the calotype as artistic; the first half of the process mechanical, but the second half of the process developing the tonality was an art.

As artistic credibility grew with the calotype, we began seeing photography used in different artistic ways. Not only as a stand alone media itself, but also as painter’s reference guides. As more painters utilized the calotype, their composition & previsualization skills began manifesting more and more with the calotypes they took. This eventually ended up cementing artistic theories about balance, composition, light/shadow, firmly into place within photography as a foundation of its’ visual language as artistic expression.

Click to read more columns about The History of Photography.

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