The negative in Photography
and how to create a digital one
The roofline of Lacock Abbey in 1835 – printed in 2008. Fox-Talbot/Sugimoto
Some thoughts on the negative in photography.
Until digital photography arrived the negative was an integral part of photography. For
every print there was a negative from which the print had been made. It is worth looking
into the story of the negative which is inseparably linked to photography.
The photographic negative is transparent. When you hold the negative against the light you
notice that the tones are reversed. White becomes black and black becomes white. For the
early photographic processes like cyanotype or calotype the negative is the same size as the
print. This is called a contact print.
Where did it start?
When Henry Fox-Talbot, an English gentleman, was on holiday in Italy in 1833 he noticed
that the sun burned his skin. He realised that ‘sunlight works changes upon material
substance’. This observation led him to coat paper with silver nitrate – a substance that was
known to change colour when exposed to sunlight. Fox-Talbot started by placing plants onto his photosensitized paper. The place where the plant had covered the paper remained
white and the area that was exposed to the sun darkened.
Thomas Mailaender 'sunburns' old photographs onto human bodies
The discovery that light could transfer the shape of things onto paper spurred Fox-Talbot’s
inquisitiveness and led him to explore this process further. In the following years Fox-Talbot
experimented with the paper and started placing his handmade photographic paper inside
his camera obscuras. The first images ever made were all negatives.
In 1841 Fox-Talbot introduced the calotype process. Calotype means beautiful impression in
Greek. He worked out that by placing his negative onto another sheet of photosensitized
paper he would produce a positive print. He placed the negative onto another sensitized
paper and exposed it in the sun. This process could be repeated many times, so it was now
possible to print many copies from the same negative. These first negatives were made of
paper. Tone characteristic of the calotype is the soft, out of focus look which is due to fibres
of the paper.
Calotype "the Fruit Sellers" either by Talbot or Rev Calvert R Jones
In the 19 th century negatives were often displayed next to the prints. That way the
photographer/printer could show her technical skills. Early photographers would often
retouch their negatives. When the sky appeared washed out in landscape photographs
because of the long exposures needed to expose the details of the much darker plants,
photographers would improve the sky by painting in clouds with soft water colours.
Sometimes photographers would merge two negatives together – like in an early version of
Hiroshi Sugimoto – a contemporary photographer interested in the history of photography,
managed to get hold of some of the early Fox-Talbot negatives which were never printed
into a positive image and have never been seen before. These early negatives are so very
sensitive to light because the fixing of the images had not been invented in 1830s. 180 years
after the exposure of the negative Sugimoto made large scale positive prints from the negatives. Fox-Talbots negatives are rarely larger than A5. Surprisingly the image appears in
colour. This is due to Fox-Talbot experimenting with different chemicals.
A couple of decades later glass negatives became popular which produced much sharper
images. Enlargers were invented which allowed for negatives to be enlarged and multiple
copies made. The golden age of the darkroom followed. The photographer would take the
negative into the darkroom to spend many hours experimenting to produce prints. The
darkroom was at the heart of photography – a place where magic happened. In the red glow
of the darkroom there was a sense of awe when the image emerges out of nowhere. The
negative itself did not get a lot of attention. Now the negative was seen as merely a means
to get to the real goal in photography, that of the final print.
If you like to explore and make your own negative for contact printing here is an easy way to get started:
Making your own negative for contact printing can be easy a bit daunting because of the
size required. To get the perfect negative you could tweak your negative extensively in
photoshop and print it on transparent film. But using a simple paper negative can give you
beautiful results too. Give it a try - here is how you do it:
The easiest way to make a paper negative is on your computer. Choose an image that you’d
like to print and size it to the dimension that you like. Invert your image into a negative in
photoshop and print it on the paper you like. Bear in mind that different papers give
different effects and try different ones for different effects. Try handmade Japanese paper?
To make your print transparent put a few drops of sunflower oil on to the backside of the
print and gently distribute all over the negative. You could rub oil onto the side on which the
ink sits too – some of the ink might come of which could give interesting effect. Let the
paper dry overnight.
Alternatively, you could do as Fox-Talbot did and place a piece of photographic paper in
your pinhole camera and expose it. Develop the paper in a darkroom using sustainable
Melanie King demonstrates how to go about this here:
The chemicals that were used to make analogue photographs during the last 170 years were
highly poisonous. Luckily today many photographers work hard trying to find alternative
ways of making negatives and prints in a sustainable way. The darkroom has evolved into a
laboratory of plants and soils.
For inspiration on how to use sustainable chemicals for photography have a look at
Hannah Fletcher – The sustainable darkroom
Author: Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin