Though little known today, English chemist Humphrey Davy was an important figure in the history of photography. He and his collaborator, Thomas Wedgwood, were among the first to capture pictures of nature using light. They were able to obtain silhouettes on light-sensitized paper, but the results were ephemeral—they had no way to make them permanent.
In 1855, more than 50 years after Davy and Wedgwood’s pioneering work, Allen S. Heath published a little book titled Photography: A new treatise, theoretical and practical, of the processes and manipulations on paper, dried and wet: glass, collodion, and albumen, which is available via the Getty Research Portal. This manual was illustrated with only one image, a portrait of Humphrey Davy—a remarkable tribute to one of the earliest, but rather forgotten, pioneers of photography.
Because Davy died a decade before the process of photography was successfully established, the image in Heath’s treatise reproduces an engraved portrait. By using the new technology of photography to reproduce a handmade print, this portrait represents a transitional moment in printed illustrations, from traditional processes to photomechanical ones.
Illustrating books by mounting original photographs on the printed page was common after the invention of photography in the late 1830s. Known as photography incunabula, such books were produced in the years before photomechanical illustrations became the standard for print media later in the 1800s. (The term incunabula refers to the pre-1500 printed books published within the first decades after the invention of printing by Gutenberg.)
The production of photography incunabula was expensive and time-consuming. It also usually limited book editions to a relatively small print run, ranging from twenty to a few hundred. These books are therefore rare and important sources for scholars studying the history of photography and the history of the book.
New Sights, New Techniques
The Getty Research Institute is compiling an inventory of its photography incunabula holdings. This project’s main focus is on materials from the very first decades after photography became a viable technology in the 1840s. Given these early dates, the project is limited to books illustrated with salted-paper or albumen prints.
In the first years of photography, prints were usually made from salted-paper or wet-plate collodion negatives. Starting in the 1860s, they were gradually replaced by more permanent processes such as carbon prints, autotypes, Woodburytypes, or platinum prints, and by photomechanical printing processes including collotypes, heliotypes, photo-engravings, and photo-etchings. These new techniques greatly expanded the use of photographic illustrations in books and, by the 1880s, had made mounted silver and albumen photographs obsolete.
One of the most remarkable examples of photographically illustrated books is a rare copy of Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard’s Album photographique de l’artiste et de l’amateur, a large format book comprising 36 salted paper prints mounted with gold borders. This digitized title is also now available via the Research Portal. Blanquart-Evrard, a French chemist and cloth merchant by trade, became one of the most important figures of 19th-century photography because he industrialized the printing of salted-paper photographs.
Today considered the “Gutenberg of Photography,” Blanquart-Evrard built a printing workshop with dedicated sections for printing, sorting, cutting, and mounting of images—allowing a large quantity of 200 to 300 prints to be produced per negative each day. Published in 1851, the first edition of his Album photographique is exemplary for the variety of genres captured in early photographic illustrations, as well as for the variety of both anonymous and recognized practitioners. Among the many landscapes, city views, and archeological monuments in the album are Parisian destinations, a painting by Van Eyck, the Parthenon in Greece, and an Indian temple.
Other publications in the special collections of the Research Institute provide insight into the industrialization of photographic printing by rival methods. In the 1850s English photographer Francis Frith founded a photographic-printing firm in England that specialized in photographs of the Middle East, particularly Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, which he visited between 1856 and 1860.
Frith’s albumen prints were printed from wet-plate collodion negatives, which offered greater sharpness, faster execution, and increased stability compared to the salted-paper negatives used by Blanquart-Evrard. To publish over 2,000 copies of his books, which were often presented as double volumes, Frith had to print a stunning 150,000 photographs in total. Because he interchanged negatives of the same subject, the Research Institute’s copy of his 1862 publication Lower Egypt, Thebes and the Pyramids varies from other copies of the book, such as the one held in the New York Public Library.
These and other photography incunabula are being digitized for the Getty Research Portal, an online search platform that provides global access to art history texts. A collaboration between 15 international libraries, the Portal represents a dynamic and ever-growing research tool that will eventually offer over 70 photography incunabula from the Research Institute’s collection to further research on the history of the illustrated book.
We hope that other institutions with holdings of photography incunabula will consider joining this project by contributing their digitized titles to the Getty Research Portal.
Text of this post © Kathrin Schönegg. All rights reserved.