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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Early photographic illustration: the mounted print

Photographic print of British Guiana, with houses in the foreground and ships in the backgroundPhotographic print showing houses from an urban street in British Guiana, with ships in the background In 1844 The pencil of nature was published by the London publishing firm of Longman; the work of William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77), pioneer of photography, it was the first book to contain photographic illustrations. In 1845 Fox Talbot issued Sun pictures of Scotland also comprising photographic prints mounted on the page.

The term ‘sun pictures’ was an attempt to convey to the public what a revolutionary method of illustration these photographs were. On the title page to The pencil of nature Fox Talbot wrote:

The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist's pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.

It soon became clear, however, that the production of books illustrated with photographic plates was not straightforward. The plates were printed on silver-coated sheets of paper, exposed under changeable light conditions and then fixed and washed, often with contaminated water; the quality of reproduction was variable and the plates soon began to fade.

Fox Talbot and others began to investigate alternative methods of reproducing photographs, seeking to fuse the tried and trusted medium of the engraved plate, printed with printer’s ink, with the new invention to yield a consistent and cost-effective means of reproduction.

Fox Talbot’s ‘photographic engraving’ method, patented in 1852, his ‘photoglyphic engraving’, patented in 1858 and Paul Pretsch’s ‘photogalvanography’ (1856) all used the principle of generating an engraved plate from a photographic negative, but they were expensive and time-consuming. It was not until the Czech printer and illustrator Karel Klič (1841-1927) invented the process of photogravure in 1879 that the publication of books with high quality photographic illustrations became commercially viable.

The potential uses of photographic illustrations were so great, however, that many publishers of the 1860s and 1870s issued books with mounted photographic plates, despite the variable quality of reproduction and the plates’ tendency to fade. Photographs offered readers the opportunity to see for themselves works of art held in faraway cities and life in exotic countries they would never visit.

The book on display, published in what is now Guyana but largely intended for the British armchair traveller, illustrates both the appeal and the fragility of the mounted photographic print.

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