As part of its celebration of 50 years of photography auctions, Sotheby’s recently sold a set of very early photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877). Despite a pre-auction estimate of $300,000-500,000, the final sale price was a staggering $1,956,000, setting a new auction record for Talbot.

The lot of Talbot images was one of 25 lots sold earlier this week as part of Sotheby’s ‘50 Masterworks to Celebrate 50 Years of Sotheby’s Photographs‘ celebration. The auction included work by famous photographers like Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, Cindy Sherman, Irving Penn, William Eggleston, and many more. The collection of Talbot prints sold for the highest amount, although the sale of some lots has yet to be finalized.

Horatia with harp, 1843.

Sotheby’s writes, ‘The extraordinary collection offered here of albums and photographs by Talbot comes originally from Henrietta Horatia Maria Gaisford (née Feilding), the photographer’s half-sister, and has remained with family for more than 170 years. Its scope – replete with loose photographs, personal albums, fascicles of ‘The Pencil of Nature,’ a complete ‘Sun Pictures in Scotland,’ and Horatia’s own early sketchbook – is unlike anything that has previously come to market.’

Thomas Moore; Horatia Feilding; Ela Theresa, Rosamond Constance, and Matilda Caroline Talbot, 1844

Talbot is well-known for his role as a pioneer of photography. A scientist and inventor, Talbot invented the salted paper and calotype photographic processes, setting the stage for further advancement in photographic technology in the later 19th century and 20th century. While Talbot invented a photographic process to create permanent photographs, his process was not the first invented or announced. Following Louis Daguerre’s invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, Talbot claimed that he had beaten the Frenchmen to the punch. Talbot had begun experimentation in 1834 and captured paper photographs in 1835. Talbot, at this point already a well-established member of the Royal Society in England, and Daguerre differed in their photographic techniques. There remains some controversy over which of the two was truly the first.

Talbot’s early salt photograph process included bathing paper in a solution of sodium chloride, drying the paper and brushing it with a solution of silver nitrate. The light-sensitive paper was then able to capture images projected by a lens. What set Talbot’s work apart from earlier efforts by others was that Talbot had figured out how to make his prints insensitive, relatively speaking, to further light exposure. His negatives could then be used to create a positive.

In 1841, Talbot made significant progress with the development of the calotype photographic process. Using silver iodide instead of silver chloride and incorporating a developing agent, calotypes required only a minute or two of exposure time in sunlight, rather than more than an hour, making it a significantly more practical and refined process.

Of the sale of Talbot’s work, Sotheby’s Head of Photographs in New York, Emily Bierman, said, ‘This record-shattering sale is a true celebration of the birth of photography – the most inventive and beautiful artistic medium of our time. The fierce competition between bidders in Europe, America, and Asia demonstrates the enormous appetite among a broad base of collectors.’ PetaPixel writes that the bidding war included six online bidders, who continued to one-up each other until reaching the nearly $2M final sale price.

It’s an incredible collection of photographs and a beautiful piece of photographic history. Without people like William Henry Fox Talbot, it’s difficult to know where exactly photography would be today. You can view more images from the collection by clicking here.


All photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot. Images courtesy of Sotheby’s.

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