National Media Museum blog

We explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image, and its impact on our lives.

The world’s earliest surviving photographic negative is in our archive

With 27 days to go until our 30th birthday, the countdown continues.

The world’s earliest surviving negative was taken in August 1835 by William Henry Fox Talbot. This negative, a latticed window at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, along with several examples of the mousetrap cameras which were used by Fox Talbot to produce these very first photographic images – priceless artefacts from the birth of photography – are preserved in our archives here in Bradford.

William Henry Fox Talbot, c. 1844, Antoine Claudet, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

William Henry Fox Talbot, c. 1844, Antoine Claudet, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

In October 1833, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 – 1877), gentleman, scholar and amateur scientist, was honeymooning on the shores of Lake Como in Italy. Like many travellers of the time, he attempted to sketch the beautiful scenery. However, despite his many other talents, Talbot was a poor draughtsman and the results were, in his own words, ‘melancholy to behold’.

Frustrated by his lack of artistic ability, Talbot dreamily reflected on the perfect yet elusive images created by the camera obscura, a popular artists’ drawing aid. This, he later recalled, was the moment of inspiration which led to the invention of photography.

“How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper!”

Upon his return to England, Talbot immediately began experimenting with paper made light-sensitive by coating it with silver salts. He soon succeeded in making what he called ‘photogenic drawings’ – negative, silhouette images of objects such as leaves or lace, produced by direct contact-printing.

Naturally, Talbot also tried to capture images directly from nature by placing his photogenic drawing paper in a camera obscura, but found that the comparative insensitivity of the paper, combined with the limited aperture of the lens, meant that an image was obtained only after a very long exposure.

In the summer of 1835, helped by a spell of particularly sunny weather, Talbot tried again.

Crucially, he had by this time devised a process of improving the sensitivity of his paper. He had also correctly reasoned that exposure times could be shortened by using a camera with a small image size and a large aperture lens.

Consequently, Talbot had made a number of small wooden boxes – two or three inch cubes, which he fitted with lenses taken from the eyepieces of telescopes and microscopes.

Mousetrap camera, c. 1835. William Henry Fox Talbot, National Media Museum Collection

Mousetrap camera, c. 1835. William Henry Fox Talbot, National Media Museum Collection

There is an undocumented tradition that these first photographic cameras were made by a local carpenter named Joseph Foden. Some, however, are too crudely made to be the work of any self-respecting craftsman. One camera, possibly the earliest, was made by simply sawing what looks like a cigar box in half, so it is quite possible that Talbot made at least some of them himself.

Talbot placed these boxes around the family home, Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, and waited for the sun to work its ‘little bit of magic’.

In a letter, Talbot’s wife, Constance, wrote about the what might be perceived as eccentric behaviour of her husband and referred to these little boxes as ‘mousetraps’. The name has stuck and they are now usually referred to as Talbot’s mousetrap cameras. On reflection, they do indeed resemble simple traps, designed in this case, however, to capture the sun rather than unwanted pests.

Latticed Window at Lacock Abbey, 1835, William Henry Fox Talbot, National Media Museum Collection

Latticed Window at Lacock Abbey, 1835, William Henry Fox Talbot, National Media Museum Collection

The world’s earliest surviving negative, of a latticed window at Lacock Abbey, was taken using one of these little cameras. The negative is stored safe and secure in our archives. Unfortunately it is too fragile to be out on permanent display. I’ve been working at the Museum for nearly 30 years, and yet I’ve only seen it twice! You can see a copy of the negative alongside one of Talbot’s Mousetrap cameras in our Kodak gallery.

To share your memories of the Museum in the run up to our 30th birthday next month, leave a comment on this blog, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter, using the hashtag #NMeM30.

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About Colin Harding

I am Curator of Photographic Technology at the National Media Museum. As well as looking after the camera collection I have curated many special exhibitions over the years.

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