British photographic history

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Libraries and the preservation of early photography

The photo-historian Larry Schaaf writes in the The Magazine Antiques about the institutional collection and preservation of photographs within the context of the British Library and it's activities. The first paragraph is reproduced below. Click here for to see the full text (for free):

When photography was first announced to the public in 1839, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1781–1851) took the limelight. Daguerre’s process produced a singular photograph on a silvered sheet of copper, breathtaking in its detail and seductive in its beauty. But in the larger mainstream of communication, it was a dead end. Talbot’s productions on paper seemed coarse and cumbersome by comparison. Yet paper has traditionally been the basis of many reproductive arts and is especially the province of books, allowing Talbot’s approach into existing pathways. The Library of the British Museum (as it was then) was not the logical repository of works of art, a function served by the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert). Some photographs came in through the British Museum’s prints and drawings collection, others as part of donations of private libraries, but the truly stupendous numbers of photographs were collected contemporaneously as illustrations in books and portfolios. Since photomechanical processes were not perfected for most of the nineteenth century, many of these illustrations were original photographic prints. In many ways, we are fortunate that collections such as that of the British Library exist. They are fundamentally different from museum curated photographic collections though each has its strengths. Without this “accidental” collecting, many splendid images would either have been considered insignificant, or would not have fit the aesthetic of the moment and would have been lost to us.

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