Photographically illustrated books

Philip Henry Emerson, Gathering water-lilies, c 1886
Philip Henry Emerson, Gathering water-lilies, c 1886 Plate IX from P. H. Emerson, Life and landscapes on the Norfolk Broads (London: 1886), platinum print C.141.dd.8

Our collection of books illustrated with original photographs is among the largest and most important in the world

About the collection

The British Library’s collection of books illustrated with original photographs is among the largest and most important in the world. Before the invention of photo-mechanical processes which allowed images to be produced in ink as part of the printing process, many books were illustrated with original photographs pasted in alongside the text. William Henry Fox Talbot’s The pencil of nature (1844-46) was one of the earliest attempts to integrate photography and text in this manner and over the next forty years thousands of such books were published. With advances in printing technology in the 1880s this labour-intensive practice began to decline, although books illustrated with original photographs continued to be produced well into the 20th century. Many major 19th-century photographers used the printed book to disseminate their work, including Linnaeus Tripe, Félix Téynard, Francis Frith, John Thomson and Peter Henry Emerson.

The Library’s collections are particularly strong in the fields of British topography, travel literature, portraiture, architecture and archaeology. This method of illustration also proved popular for the reproduction of works of art, as well as for medical and scientific texts.

What is available online?

Published works can be found in the Library’s main catalogue Explore the British Library. The ongoing Catalogue of Photographically Illustrated Books provides a more detailed listing of this material and contains images from a number of the volumes included. A selection from these collections can also be viewed on the Online Gallery.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Published books can be ordered for study in our reading rooms. Permission (by written application) will be required to consult those works that are placed on restricted access.

Further information

For further reading, see:

‘A higher branch of the art’:  photographing the fine arts in England, 1839-1880, by Anthony Hamber (Amsterdam, c. 1996)
Imagining paradise. The Richard and Ronay Menschel Library at George Eastman House, Rochester, by Sheila J. Foster, Manfred Heiting and Rachel Stuhlman (Rochester, NY, 2007)
Incunabula of British photographic literature 1839-1875, by Helmut Gernsheim (London and Berkeley, 1984)
The photobook: a history, by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger (3 volumes, London, 2004-2014)