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Before the widespread use of photomechanical printing processes to illustrate books, original, hand-mounted photographs largely embellished the pages of printed matter. Such books were known as “photography incunabula” and emerged in the 1840s, in the early years of photography. Since the mid-1980s, the Getty Research Institute (GRI) has been acquiring such books as part of its broader body of art history-related literature, and it is currently digitizing over 70 examples from its collection. Available online at the Getty Research Portal, the photography incunabula GRI is focusing on consists of early material, mostly illustrated with salted-paper and albumen prints.
“Traditionally, the term ‘incunabula’ refers to the books printed in the first five decades of the 15th century, starting from the Gutenberg Bible, the earliest book printed with movable types,” Isotta Poggi, an assistant curator of photographs told Hyperallergic. “By extension, ‘photography incunabula’ refers to the earliest books illustrated with ‘real’ photographs, taken with a camera obscura and printed from negatives on paper in multiple copies.”
Producing photography incunabula was time-consuming and labor-intensive, involving a series of processes, from carrying out complex treatments (“often under unfavorable conditions,” Poggi notes) to preparing the negatives to creating and pasting the actual images into publications that were usually pre-printed. It was also a costly endeavor, especially if a photographer wished to create multiple copies of a book. According to Kathrin Schönegg, a GRI fellow working on the project, most books had between just 20 to a few hundred editions — making some copies incredibly rare.
The Getty’s holdings of photography incunabula spans a vast array of topics, from a 1878 publication filled with beautiful microscopic images of plant anatomy to an exceptionally rare 1844 edition of H. Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature — considered the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs showing the potential of the medium. (GRI has not digitized the latter, which is one of perhaps only 15 completed copies still in existence.) The Institute also has two significant examples of mass-produced photography incunabula: a 1851 photo album by Louis Désiré Blanquard Evrard featuring an array of artworks and architecture from around the world — with individual, printed captions — and a 1862 book by British photographer Francis Frith showing 37 views of Egypt. Schönegg notes that Frith printed a grand total of about 150,000 photographs to distribute over 2,000 editions of his book, sometimes using different negatives for the same subject, so GRI’s copy is different from others.
As printing technologies developed, distributors saw new opportunities to produce all sorts of photography incunabula that were educational as well as aesthetically beautiful. One such “rare and unknown gem” Poggi highlighted is the Handbook of Greek Lace Making from 1870 by Julia Herschel — the daughter of John Herschel, who invented the cyanotype — that used the medium to illustrate the craft of lace-making. Mounted either within the text or on separate leaves, the 22 cyanotypes are perfectly suited for the handbook, capturing the intricacy of lace patterns well.
By the 1880s, production of photography incunabula was largely discontinued as photomechanical techniques took the forefront for their efficiency. GRI’s project, which is open to contributions, documents this important period of photography’s history, ensuring the preservation of such unique material that captured within their bindings not just historic views but also the touch of individual hands.
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