The calotype or “Talbotype,” invented by William Henry Fox Talbot, was a technical breakthrough that helped stimulate the world-wide spread of photography. Another innovation, the daguerreotype, emerged at approximately the same time. Daguerreotypy was limiting in a number of ways. Although it yielded very high-quality images, its exposure times were long and the process did not allow multiple prints of an image to be produced. The calotype addressed this latter shortcoming by enabling photographers to make multiple prints from a single negative.

Calotypy’s use was never as widespread as daguerreotypy. Talbot strictly licensed the process, and his fees tended to dampen the commercial potential of the process.  Calotypes were predominantly made by a small number of well-known photographers in the 1840s and early 1850s, including Maxime du Camp, Édouard-Denis Baldus, and Henri le Secq.

Conceptually, the calotype negative process is very similar to modern analogue photographic techniques. Talbot coated a sheet of high-quality paper with salt and a solution of silver nitrate, and found that the paper would darken in the sun; however, by applying a second coat of salt he could stop further darkening. He called this early process “the art of photogenic drawing,” and later employed it as the basis for the calotype. Both the calotype and daguerreotype were eventually rendered obsolete by the albumen print and the wet collodion glass negative process.  These new processes were much cheaper to employ and results were fast; a customer could receive a finished photograph in just a few minutes.

The Henry Art Gallery is fortunate to have a number of excellent examples of calotype prints. Since the process was reliant on strong sunlight, the majority of calotypes were taken outdoors.  Landscapes and documentary images of architecture tended to predominate as the subjects of calotypes, and this tendency is reflected in the images found in the Henry’s collection. 

Erin Weible

(William Henry Fox Talbot: Untitled (statuary))


William Henry Fox Talbot (England, 1800–1877)

Untitled (statuary). 1846

Salted paper print from calotype paper negative

8 3/8 x 6 5/8 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Monsen Study Collection of Photography, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen, 79.168

This calotype from 1846 was made by the inventor of the process, William Henry Fox Talbot.  Talbot advocated photographing sculptures, and considered them one of the most important classes of subjects, stating, “…a statue may be placed in any position with regard to the sun, either directly opposite to it, or at any angle: the directness or obliquity of the illumination causing of course an immense difference in the effect”.

(Unknown: Untitled (church))


Unknown photographer (Great Britain [?])

Untitled (church). c. 1855

Waxed paper negative

9 1/4 x 10 15/16 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Monsen Study Collection of Photography, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen, 79.249

This striking negative was created using an improvement to the calotype introduced by Gustave le Gray in 1851. Imperfections in photographic paper would often mar a calotype negative; le Gray introduced a process for waxing the paper prior to exposure and development, yielding a better final image. The image presented here as an excellent example of le Gray’s innovation.