Weekly E-book: The Pencil of Nature

The Open Door, from Fox Talbot's classic The Pencil of Nature

The Open Door, from Fox Talbot’s classic The Pencil of Nature


Though many people had been working on photographic processes since at least 1802 — the publication date of Thomas Wedgwood’s paper “An Account of a method of copying Paintings upon Glass, and of making Profiles, by the Agency of Light upon Nitrate of Silver”–
the 7th of January 1839 remains in history books everywhere as “the beginning of photography.”

That date marked the first public announcement of Louis Daguerre’s invention of the daguerreotype. Two weeks after Daguerre’s announcement, William Henry Fox Talbot also announced his process of “photogenic drawing,” describing a similar process. Daguerre’s invention created a unique positive print on a polished silver surface; Fox Talbot’s created a unique positive print on a sheet of paper.

The paper print was not nearly as sharp or lifelike as the daguerreotype. It did, however, have a subtle and, at the time, unnoticed advantage. Rather than etching an image into a piece of light sensitive sheet metal, the paper process relied on light sensitive silver resting on the surface of the paper.

Two years later Fox Talbot would change the process to create not a unique positive print on paper, but rather a unique negative print from which one could make multiple positive prints by contact printing. This new process called the calotype became the basis of virtually all photography in the 19th and 20th Centuries, until the invention of digital imaging.

The Pencil of Nature is the very first book of photographs ever published. Briefly it recounts Fox Talbot’s invention of the calotype process out of his own experiments with photography dating from 1834. Then it gets down to its real business, which is showing off twenty-four new photographs, with some text containing Fox Talbot’s thoughts on the future direction of the new medium.

The thoughts themselves are interesting–even then Fox Talbot was suggesting photography beyond the visual range (ultraviolet especially)–but it is the photographs that make the book such a landmark. Because there was no such thing as photogravure or halftone printing when Fox Talbot published the book in its serial format from 1844 to 1846, original versions of the book contained actual prints of the photographs, inserted by hand into the book.

The book is available from Amazon, but caveat emptor: In a genius-like bit of Amazonia, they have released The Pencil of Nature in Kindle format containing no photographs, only text. If you are a nouveau riche with money to spend pointlessly, hardcover facsimile copies of the book struck from the original plates run around $150. Late last year someone finally released a paperback version that is more reasonably priced, around $10, though not taken from the original plates to my knowledge.

This version is free. I have also corrected a couple of spelling errors and formatted the book properly with the images on a page of their own, opposite the text.

Download EPUB from the Seattle Star site here.

Filed under Photography

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net