MANHATTAN — Without William Henry Fox Talbot, we might not have modern photography as we know it.
Talbot may not be a household name, but his invention of the photographic negative in the mid-1800s formed the foundation of modern photography, according to the organizers of an exhibition of rare photographs on paper from his early years opening in September.
“Talbot’s World: A Gallery of Natural Magic,” which will be on view at Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs, on Park Avenue and East 82nd Street, from Sept. 25 to Nov. 2, will show more than 25 photogenic drawings, calotype negatives and salt prints from 1839 through 1844. Many of these images have never before been on display.
The British scientist’s use of light-sensitive chemistry with a negative-positive process on paper changed the art form.
It took a different path from other early photo processes such as the daguerreotype, which recorded pictures on metal plates and was introduced just two weeks before Talbot announced his invention in 1839. A year later, Talbot made even more progress, shortening exposure times and allowing multiple prints to be made from a single negative.
Talbot’s failed use of a camera obscura — an optical tool that artists used to help draw objects — helped spur his invention.
"[H]ow charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper,” he wrote.
The Kraus gallery show’s title comes from a recently discovered pamphlet from 1839, “A Description of the Instruments Employed in the Gallery of Natural Magic," which includes a sonnet in honor of Talbot’s achievement.
“No one was more surprised at the magical dimensions of photography than the inventor himself,” Talbot scholar Larry Schaaf wrote in the show’s catalogue. “His scientific side realized that he had simply harnessed natural magic. Everything that he had accomplished could be explained within Nature’s laws, yet that made the new art no less a marvel to him.”
The exhibition includes three pairs of salt prints newly reunited with their original paper negatives — a rare event, show organizers said.
One of these images, and one of Talbot’s most famous, is called “Footman at Carriage Door,” taken Oct. 14, 1840, shortly after the inventor announced his discovery of the calotype negative process.
It is believed to be the first significant photo on paper showing a standing human figure, according to the show’s organizers. Talbot’s book, “The Pencil of Nature” (1844 – 1846), was the first book illustrated with photography and the first mass production of photos.
“In less than a decade, Talbot conceived and brought about a wholly new way of making pictures, perfected the optical and chemical aspects of photography, and learned to use the new medium to make complex images for the botanist, historian, traveler, and artist,” wrote Malcolm Daniel, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s department of photography.
Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs, at 962 Park Ave. at 82nd Street, will show “Talbot’s World: A Gallery of Natural Magic," from Sept. 25 through Nov. 2.