William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877), the English inventor of photography on paper, was a brilliant scientist and mathematician, a pioneer in the study of Assyrian cuneiform and a Member of the First Reform Parliament. In spite of this range of skills, his draughtsmanship was appalling, so much so that during an 1833 sojourn in Italy he conceived of a plan for encouraging Nature to draw her own images. After the art of photography was announced to the public in 1839, several paths for its future presented themselves. In the end, it was Talbot’s vision of a negative that could produce multiple prints on paper that defined the mainstream of photography right up until the digital age.

In this heavily illustrated lecture, Larry Schaaf will draw on the extensive surviving archives of Talbot’s original photographs and manuscripts to demonstrate that, beyond the act of invention, Talbot learned from what he invented and became the first artist to be trained by photography.

This Power Lecture took place on 22 September 2011, as part of the Sydney Ideas program at the University of Sydney.



Dr Larry J Schaaf first became interested in the history of art while teaching photography at the University of Texas at Austin, home of the Gernsheim Collection of Historical Photography. Over the past four decades, William Henry Fox Talbot has emerged as the core of his studies, and he has written numerous books and journal articles including Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot & the Invention of Photography (1992) and The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot (2000). For the past thirty years, he has been an independent historian based in Baltimore, Maryland. For 2005, he was appointed the Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford.

Professor Schaaf is the founder and Director of The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot, which has mounted full searchable transcriptions of more than 10,000 of Talbot’s letters online.