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Technical English  /  History  .

An  advanced level English resource.

William Fox Talbot and the origins of photography

    Who goes on holiday today without a camera? Who even goes to school without a camera (unless they are banned in school) ?  Taking photos has become a part of life. It’s so  easy! But have you ever stopped to think about photography? It may seem part of normal life to us, but  cameras  – not to mention mobile phone cameras – are a fairly modern invention!
    
W H Fox-Talbot
Fox Talbot in around 1850
  Digital photography, which most of us use now in our daily life, is a very new process. Even in the year 2000, very few people owned a digital camera, and the digital cameras that existed in 2000 were not very powerful. But if digital photography is a new process, so too is photography itself, as it has existed for less than 200 years. It all dates back to a process discovered in about 1835  by a man called William Henry Fox Talbot, who is now known as the father of photography.
  William Fox Talbot was not a professional photographer;  he was just a very clever man — a genius, some people said.  He was born in 1800 in the west of England. A very good pupil at school, he was sent by his parents to Cambridge University where he was a brilliant student.
    Universities were different in those days, and Fox Talbot  studied a lot of different things: classics, foreign languages,  Hebrew, botany, chemistry and mathematics were among them!  And he did well in everything he studied. By the time he was  31, he had been elected as a member of the Royal Society,  that is the British academy of sciences.
A window in Lacock
This is the oldest photo in the world: the "Oriel window" at Lacock, taken in 1835 by Fox Talbot
    During the 1830's, he travelled a lot in Europe, visiting  many historical sites. As he travelled, he drew lots of pictures,  because he studied each site he visited. To help him draw quickly and accurately, he used a camera obscura.
    As a scientist, Fox Talbot knew that some chemicals are  sensitive to light. And like a few other of his contemporaries,  he began to look for a way to use these light-sensitive chemicals to "fix" the image from his camera obscura. He decided  to try impregnating paper with chemicals, so that the image  could be automatically reproduced on the paper.
    In 1839, a Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, announced that  he had succeeded in fixing an image. His process was very complicated, using metal plates and a collection of chemicals  including iodine, bromine, silver, sodium thiosulphate, and  others too. His process was called the daguerrotype.
    As soon as Daguerre made his announcement, Fox Talbot announced that he had already discovered a different  process which worked.    While Daguerre’s process produced a positive image on  metal, Fox Talbot's produced a negative image on impregnated  paper. He called it a calotype. A positive image could be  produced by making a "contact" image from the first negative.
 
A window in Lacock
This is a recent digital photo of the same "Oriel window" at Lacock, taken in 2019 by Linguapress
   The calotype process was a bit simpler than the daguerrotype; and though both systems were used for several years, the  latter finally disappeared, and the negative/positive process  discovered by Fox Talbot became the international standard.
    Fox Talbot's original process was faster than the daguerrotype, but developing took a long time. Within forty years, other  people had improved it, and the art of photography had become  common throughout Europe and North America.
    The black-and-white photos on this page were taken over 150 years ago, but some professional photographers are still using Fox Talbot's black-and-white photography process today.
  For most of us however, photography in the twenty-first century is entirely different. Digital photography, using a camera or a mobile phone, is entirely electronic. And unlike Fox Talbot's process, it is immediate. We immediately see the photo we have taken... there's no need to wait a few days or a few weeks, in order to see the result.    What would William Fox Talbot have said of today’s  mobile phone cameras, with high-resolution colour capacity, auto-focus, a zoom lens, and a  built-in flash?   

 
  CAMERA OBSCURA    This is a box with a small hole in it. There is a glass lens in the  hole, so that everything in front of the box is projected as an  image on the back end of the box. The back side of the box is  made of glass, and if you put a piece of paper on the glass, you  can quickly trace the image onto the paper.



Word guide
WORD GUIDE
process: method, technique - date back to: come from-  genius: very clever person - classics: Latin and Greek - site: place - sensitive to: affected by -  impregnate with: cause to absorb, fill with - which worked:  which was successful - standard: norm, usual method - lens: optical glass  

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Fox Talbot and Harry Potter....
Fox Talbot  lived and did much of his work in his family home, Lacock Abbey, in  Wiltshire, England. Today, Lacock (pronounced Lay-cock) Abbey, a beautiful historic house,  belongs to the National Trust, and includes the Fox Talbot museum of photography.  Lacock Abbey was one of the locations used for the interiors of Hogwarts School in the first two Harry Potter films, and for this reason attracts many Harry Potter fans from round the world.


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Student Worksheet

William Fox Talbot, the father of photography
Read the article and say whether these statements are true or false:
1. Fox Talbot was elected to the Royal Society when he was still a student.
2. Fox Talbot took photos during his tours of Europe in the 1830s.
3. Fox Talbot was not the first person to show that certain chemicals reacted to light.
4. It is not clear who, Fox Talbot or Daguerre, actually fixed the first photographic image. 
5. The Daguerrotype is the ancestor of the classic black and white photo.
6. Fox Talbot’s process was soon improved by other people. .

Complete this extract from the text, insert  an article (a, an or the) whenever necessary – but only when necessary !
While .......... Daguerre’s process produced .......... positive image on .......... metal, Fox Talbot’s produced ............ negative image on ........... impregnated paper. He called it a calotype.
   .................. calotype process was ............. bit simpler than ......... daguerrotype; and though ............. both systems were used for several years, .............. latter finally disappeared, and ........... negative/positive process discovered by ........... Fox-Talbot became ........... international standard.

For teachers:

Technical language:


Note the use of technical language in this article. The  article exercise above is related to this.

Note the expressions light sensitive and sensitive to light. Can students think up other pairs of words which might behave in a similar manner.
  Here are some possible answers: heat resistant, smoke activated, temperature sensitive, radio controlled, colour coded, shock resistant, coin operated, shock absorbing, etc.

if you like, give your students a list of such words in separate elements, and ask them to connect them (one blue word + one red word) in as many ways as they can logically do so.
Here is an example of words to pair up : you can expand this exercise to include lots more pairs.
heat smoke temperature radio colour    sensitive   activated   coded  resistant  controlled,

Intonation: note the stress patterns of the words pho ‘tography / pho’tographer/ photo ‘graphic and ‘photograph.
Students can be excused for feeling confused! Can they indicate the correct position of the stress in other technical words in the text?    For the main rules on word stress in English, see the Word stress grammar page.

How difficult is this article ?

The Flesch-Kincaid and IELTS scores for this text both exaggerate its difficulty in the context of an EFL or ESL class. Almost by definition, technical texts use "difficult" technical words, words that are not part of everyday conversational English.  However, what is difficult when compared to everyday English may actually be easy vocabulary for students in the EFL or ESL context, as many technical words are the same in many, ir not all, languages. So a word like negative is understandable by speakers of many languages, even if they know no English.


This teaching resource is © copyright Linguapress renewed 2020.
Fully revised and updated 2020 . Originally published in Freeway.
Republication on other websites or in print is not authorised



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A Linguapress.com
Intermediate level EFL resource
Level - Intermediate.
CEFR  LEVEL :  C1
IELTS Level :  6.5
Flesch-Kincaid  scores
Reading ease level:
51.6 - Fairly difficult
 
Grade level: 10.8
Scores always give a high reading  if a text contains technical vocabulary

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This resource is © copyright Linguapress 2020.
Fox Talbot photos are in the public domain.

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