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Talbot's Way

FWIW, here is information from Michael Gray on Talbot and the waxed
paper negative invented by
Gustave LeGray. I also have LeGray's words as well somewhere in my
files if any are interested.

Waxing the Calotype
There are two factors which must be bourne in mind before
attempting to speculate or to construct hypothesis upon the waxing of
paper negateives taken in camera.

1 Bee's wax was the substance used first of all by Talbot and
them virtually by all subsequent practioners working on paper between
1843 and 1860. The use of paraffin wax to render paper transparent for
photographic use was the exception rather than the rule. Personally in
25 years I have only seen one or two examples which I fould to be
questionable in this respect. The use of unrefined beeswax was the
norm. In the late 1850s a number of photographers (eg., Geoffray)
refined the material by distilation to remove the cerulin ( the
compound which give it the wax its charactristic yellow cast).
There are two advantages which Beeswax held over parafin wax, the
first being that when it was cold it was 'set' ie., dry; generally it
would not offset or mark the sensitised paper with which it was in
contact during the process of sun printing; secondly, beeswax contains
a number of natural preservatives. If cotton and beeswax was good
enough for King Tut; it appeared to also have been good enough for WHFT!

2 The waxing of photographic paper negatives falls into two
distinct categories. Talbot waxed his calotype paper negatives:

(i) To increase the transparency of his negatives in the
light (shadow) areas and the density in the dark (shadow) areas. With
a good negative having a range of between 1.7 and 1.9 DR waxing
increased the contrast, shortens the exposure and reduces the internal
dispersive distribution of light within the body of the paper
negative. However if the negative had been somewhat underexposed then
Talbot did not aply wax. An underexposed negative, if waxed, does not
print as well, the light spreads within the paper. Unwaxed, it prints
somewhat better because the dispersion of the light caused by the
paper fibres marginally helps with the preservation of shadow detail.

(ii) Almost without exception, both Canson and
Marion used starch or resin in the manufacture of their papers whilst
in the UK (and to a certain extent in Italy) good quality writing
papers were manufactured using gelatine as the sizing colloid. This
produces a product which possess a much higher level of wet strength
and durability necessary if it is t survive the various processing
baths adn washes through which it had to pass. Neccesity has always
been the mother of invention so to speak, which is why, I believe,
that Le Gray was led to the evolution of his waxed paper process. ( A
sort of early resin coated paper !)

He first of all waxed his negative papers, prior to the application
of any chemical solutions. The paper was then thoroughly ironed to
remove all excess wax so that only the paper fibres were coated,
leaving small minute holes or pockets within the body of the sheet.
These small reserviors or holes he then filled with rice starch and it
was within this fiberous matrix that the light-sensitive silver iodide
compound was retained. By waxing the paper in this manner the actual
fibres of the paper never became wet and as a result the paper
remained strong. Incidentally if you follow the process which I have
done (following Thomas Keith's instructions) you find that it remains
dimensionally stable and expands very little unlike a calotype
negative during processing.

Based upon my undestanding of the surviving documentation I would
think that Talbot first started to wax his negatives as early as 1839,
don't quote me as I will have to check.

(I have!)
(original in the Science Museum; the bracketed numbers are reference
locations from within my Filemaker Text database
"PhotographySessential texts"). You can check this by also referring
to' Documents from the Dawn of Photography' Talbot's Notebooks P and
Q, Schaaf., LJ, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

>From my own transcription files I located the following passage from
Talbot's Notebook P:

Notebook P • folio 93, 257-260 • August 10 after, before or on
August 14
[259] Tried a picture on common Waterloo paper, put for some
minutes in Bromide of Potassium ( as ye last one was) then waxed with
a hot iron. The wax made it sufficiently transparent.

[257] Copy page of blackletter Waterloo paper placed on blotting
paper, & ironed on the back with wax;
then silvered.

[262]To engrave photographs: if the nitrate of silver were mixed
with wax, & the picture acted on by acid. the blackened parts would
disintegrate & might be washed off with water. The was to give
[illegible] to ye whole.

[270]Try rolling waxed paper with steel rollers.

This also later became standard practice as it increased the sharpness
the final print.

>From my own transcription files I located the following passage from
Talbot's Notebook Q:

Notebook Q • folio 43, ...204-210
[204...]13 Septr. The paper (a) is better made by drying it with an
iron, for this makes the texture closer & less bibulous. When pictures
are made on a bibulous paper, they ..../....

Subsequent experiments show that it should be blotted, as its
sensibility is little if at all impaired thereby,

Notebook Q • folio 44, ...204-210
[...204] ...are apt to darken in the interior, or at any rate to
come out with a coarser grain. <<< The paper (a) may be waxed and
still remains excitable by Nitrate of Silver for the liquid adheres to
<<< the waxed surface.§ A picture of Patroclus was thus made, in the
shade, c.a. 45" evening but the unwaxed paper is more sensitive.

These are a few directly quotable references made by WHFT to the
waxing of photographic paper negatives which I think are demonstrably
the earliest references made to carrying out the practice. I n, fact,
he would appear to have a good claim to have also anticipated Le Gray
in the last paragraph. How do we know or how can we tell whether or
not some of Talbot's later negatives were not waxed prior to

Related information

The invention of waxing the papers could be related to the start of
the parrafin and paraffin industry in Great Britain. The scientist
Lyon Playfair describes in his memoirs his discovery in 1847 of
paraffin in the coal mines in Debyshire that belonged to the family
of James Young, his fellow student then. James Young made a large
fortune of that discovery. Playfair knew many of the scientists
intimately who made substantial contributions to the art of
photography like Sir David Brewster and Sir Charles Wheatstone. I
would not be surprised if that invention has been related to the
practice of waxing the negatives.

In the library of the Science Museum is a brochure " Plain
Directions for obtaining photographic pictures", by Charles Heisch FCS
(publisher Richard Willats, optician). There is no date on this
brochure, but it must have been written after 1852. The brochure
describes in detail the waxed paper process invented by the French
potographer Le Gray, that has been published for the first time in
1850 (second edition in september 1852). In this process the paper is
waxed before all other preparations. According to the text How and
Crookes made each some alterations of this process. The photographer
John Stewart (living in Pau and brother in law of the famous
astronomer John Herschel) describes in a letter to Herschel his method
of sensitizing the paper using a vacuum pump. This method had been
developed with the help of the French scientist Regnault. I am however
citing a contemporary paper. Most inventions concerning the
photographic process have been done simultaniously in different

Michael Gray, Curator, National Trust, Fox Talbot Museum
Scientific Director: University of Pordenone EC Raphaello IkonsCentre
Lacock Chippenham Wiltshire SN15 2LG UK
00 44 1 249 730 176 direct line
00 44 1 249 730 459 main switchboard
00 44 1 373 830 472 fax

< m.w.gray@bath.ac.uk>