The following is a guest post by Adam Silvia, Associate Curator of Photography.
A new collection overview provides an entrée into the development of photographically illustrated books, which are well represented in the Library of Congress collections.
What are photographically illustrated books? They are books that feature actual photographic prints to make a textual narrative more vivid or to tell an entire story. In the nineteenth century, before photomechanical processes were invented, individually inserting photographs into a book or developing photographs directly on the pages were initially the only ways to bring qualities of a photo to the illustrations.
Not only was it labor-intensive to produce and bind multiple copies of the text and illustrations, but the photographs themselves were often very challenging to make, as the English photographer Francis Frith explained in his book, Egypt, Sinai, and Palestine (ca. 1862). “My readers are, perhaps, not aware that the original pictures,” such as that showing tombs in Egypt, “were taken on glass,” said Frith. “[Developed] in a smothering little tent” and “pushing my way backwards, upon my hands and knees, into a damp, slimy rock-tomb… it is truly marvelous that the [photographs] should be presentable at all.”
Given such obstacles, photographically illustrated books were highly priced, and some are now exceedingly rare. Photographically illustrated books explore a wide variety of topics, picturing everything from ancient ruins to expositions, landscapes, the United States Congress and the American Civil War.
In the twentieth century, however, the medium evolved into the ubiquitous photobook, utilizing new, economical, photomechanical printing processes. Beloved by many, photobooks now adorn coffee tables throughout the world, thanks in part to the past creativity of publishers and photographers like Frith.
- Explore the collection overview, “Photographically Illustrated Books and Photo Books.”
- Search for photographically illustrated books in the Prints & Photographs Division Online Catalog.
- Have a look at two related collection overviews: