Index Photography
Aspects of the Victorian Book
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  Photographically illustrated books
 
   
 
Photography  

The history and development of the photographically illustrated book parallel the explosion in communications technology in the Victorian era. In a period of unprecedented advances in science, travel, tourism and industry, photography provided an exciting, new and accurate alternative to conventional methods of illustration such as etching and engraving. The nineteenth century also witnessed a growth in the publication of books containing original photographs of paintings, sculpture, and engravings of art works. Art was thus democratised by the process of photographic reproduction. The application of photography as a form of narrative also provided a new means of illustrating fiction and non-fiction.

The Pencil of Nature (1844-6) by William Henry Fox Talbot was the first published photographically illustrated book. Talbot's 'calotype' invention was a paper process, based on the effect of sunlight upon a solution of sodium chloride (table salt) and silver nitrate soaked into a sheet of paper which became light sensitive. Chemical development produced a negative image on the paper, which was rendered permanent by a 'fixing solution' invented by Sir John Herschel. The 'negative' was then placed over another sheet of paper which had been chemically treated and 'exposed' to sunlight. This action produced a positive image - a direct, but reversed image of the negative.

The significance and value of Talbot's invention was the ability of his process to produce multiple copies from one negative. Recognised by the publishing industry as the 'most marvellous of all the inventions of modern times' (The Search for a Publisher, 1865), the use of photographs to illustrate books began tentatively in the mid-nineteenth century. The cost of the production of hand-made photographs, and the impermanence of the images, forced publishers to evaluate carefully the commercial risk of this new medium. As Robert Hunt wrote in his Photography: a treatise in chemical changes, 'the cost of reproduction was still too high for man to press the sun into the service of industry'.

However, once technical advances in photographic printing had achieved more permanent images at lower costs, photographs became more widely used. The addition of original hand-made photographs transformed book and periodical illustration until the late nineteenth century, when various forms of the photo-mechanical processes were introduced. It then became possible to transfer the photographic image to the printing block, thus enabling the mass, mechanical reproduction of an original photograph.

Annie Gilbert

   
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