Photographic books are almost as old as photography itself. Indeed, one of the inventors of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot, was also author of one of the very first books to include photographs, The Pencil of Nature (1844).
Today, the printed page is where we most frequently encounter photographs, but until recently, little attention had been paid to the importance of the book to the history of photography.
Many photographers work in series, and the book, rather than the photographic print, is their preferred mode of presentation. Photographs take on new meanings when juxtaposed in imaginative layouts, or when combined with text, and many photographic books are the result of collaboration between photographers, designers and writers.
The book can function as a portable exhibition, bringing photographs to a wide audience and allowing viewers the freedom to return to them at leisure. Viewing photographs on the pages of books is often a more intimate experience than seeing them as framed object. Books are meant to be handled, their covers opened, their pages turned.
The Museum has been collecting photographic books since 1852. The images below represent a small selection from the V&A's holdings. Many more may be seen and handled on request in both the National Art Library and the Prints and Drawings Study Room.
Josef Wlha, 'Illustrated Catalogue of the Austrian Masterpieces of Fine and Decorative Arts Publishing Company'
Josef Wlha (active 1885-1906)
'Illustrated Catalogue of the Austrian Masterpieces of Fine and Decorative Arts Publishing Company'
(Illustrirter Katalog des Kunstverlages österr. Meisterwerke der bildenden Künste und des Kunstgewerbes)
Museum no. E.1252-1995
These tiny photographs of works of art show multiple examples of the same type of object - here, ceramic stoves and details of architectural ornament. The book served both as an index of decorative art typologies and also as a catalogue of photographs that could be individually ordered in larger sizes.
Eadweard Muybridge, 'Animals in Motion…An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Muscular Actions '
Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904)
'Animals in Motion…An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Muscular Actions '
Fourth impression, London: Chapman & Hall
National Art Library barcode: 3 8041 994 12046 7
Muybridge became famous for using photographs to analyse the strides of horses. His experiments were the focus of artistic and scientific debate around the world and anticipated cinema. Using a bank of separate cameras and the most rapid available negatives, claiming exposures of 1/1000 of a second, Muybridge demonstrated that horses gallop with all four feet simultaneously off the ground.
William Howitt, 'Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain and Ireland'
William Howitt (1792-1879)
'Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain and Ireland'
Photograph probably by Stephen Thompson (1831-93)
London: A.W. Bennett
National Art Library barcode: 3 8041 800 00805 4
Books like this allowed Victorian readers to travel without leaving their libraries. The deluxe binding incorporates a photograph of Kenilworth Castle with a medieval motif. The enthusiasm for medieval architecture stemmed partly from popular authors such as Sir Walter Scott. Howitt wrote of Kenilworth, 'had not Sir Walter Scott made it the theme of one of his most thrilling romances, its ivied ruins would have stood little regarded.'
Christien Meindertsma, 'Checked Baggage: 3264 Prohibited Items' (cover)
Christien Meindertsma (born 1980)
Checked Baggage: 3264 Prohibited Items (cover)
Eindhoven: Soeps Uitgeverij, 2004
V&A and Private collection
In 2004, Meindertsma purchased a lot of 3264 objects confiscated from travellers at security checkpoints at the Amsterdam airport. This book is a visual catalogue of those objects, which range from souvenir corkscrews to toy guns. Each copy of the book is sealed with one of the actual objects.
View a page from the book
Anna Atkins, 'Title page of British Ferns'
Anna Atkins (1797-1871)
Title page of British Ferns
Museum no. Ph.379-1981
Atkins was the world's first woman photographer and the first person ever to publish a photographically illustrated book (British Algae, 1843). She took up what she called 'Sir John Herschel's beautiful process of cyanotype' as soon as it was invented in 1842. This is the title page of her second series of botanical illustrations.
Euan Duff, 'Time Off'
Euan Duff (born 1939)
Handmade book of gelatin silver prints
Many photographers create handmade 'dummies' in order to work out the design and layout of books. Euan Duff has reversed the process by creating a handmade book that re-configures photographs published in the book How We Are 20 years earlier.