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  • Writer's picturePeter Renn

The Joy of Old Photography Handbooks

I adore a big, beautiful photography book. Settling into my favourite chair with a glass of something agreeable and a lavishly printed collection of images is good for the soul. Gorgeous though they are, I’ve got a soft spot for the Art Photo Book’s nerdy, usually out of date cousin, the technical handbook.

Here are a few from my collection, blinking nervously in the sunlight. They don’t get out much, poor things:

Ferric and Heliographic Processes. (1900)

"A handbook for photographers, draughtsmen and sun printers” - this charity shop find is an absolute delight. Published in 1900 it covers cyanotype and kallitype (Argyrotype) but also obscure things like the ‘Obernetter Process’ and Uranotypes - yes, prints made with uranium salts! The period ads and illustrations are all splendid too.

There are sample prints bound into the book - all of technical illustrations (this is where we get the term ‘blueprint’ after all) rather than photographs but it’s fascinating and will surely be a source for more experimenting. I have UV light boxes of course but I’ll wait for the sunny months. More appropriate for practicing the ‘Heliographic Art’.

My Leica and I. (1937)

Leica Amateurs Show Their Pictures.

Not really a technical book, but the lens, f-stop, shutter speed, filter and film type are recorded for every picture. I can remember this practice continuing well into the late ‘70s if not later.- of course amateur magazines still do it. As if we can somehow learn by knowing this data. I’m quite sure most photographers wouldn’t remember it anyway, so most are probably guesses. Anyway, it’s a nice companion to my beloved 1936 Leica IIIa as it dates from the same period. I also like the true amateur (in the sense of one who does a thing for the love of it) approach to the photographs.

The Leica Manual, 8th edition May 1942

Like the other Leica title, I have this as a companion to my own camera. I’m not a vintage Leica collector (I can’t afford it!), but the illustrations of the bewildering array of accessories and attachments for specialist uses are entertaining. There’s also an interesting article on the design of a photo layout on ‘drought’ using Arthur Rothstein's and Dorothea Lange’s pictures - including Lange’s famous “Migrant Mother” picture. Now rightly regarded as a classic, I rather enjoy the matter-of-fact way it's treated here. The co-author of the chapter is Roy Stryker who of course hired Lange, Rothstien and the others...

The A B C Guide to Autotype Permanent Photography. 1899.

The Autotype Company were early (1868) commercial manufacturers of the transfer tissue used in carbon printing. The company still exists, nowadays making specialist products for the printing and automotive industries. This lovely little book is a handbook of the carbon print process still used by alternative process practitioners today. There are only two illustrations but one is a tipped-in genuine Autotype single transfer print on toned etching paper. Intriguingly there are also a couple of pages and another actual print from a completely different book on silver printing by Henry Peach Robinson - I have yet to track that one down…

Wellcome Photographic Exposure Calculator, Handbook and Diary, 1931

A little gem, designed to fit in the pocket does everything described in its long title. There’s a dial-type exposure calculator, where by combining the light data from monthly tables (for northern hemisphere and tropics), time of day, weather etc. it tells you how to set the camera. There a re also lots of articles on all aspects of photography from developing and printing to selling your work etc. etc. plus some nice illustrative line drawings and a couple of photographic plates. The bookmark is terrific too: Wellcome were (still are?) a chemical and pharmaceutical company and it takes the shape of a tube of anti-insect cream - “a boon to out-door photographers”

The Perfect Negative. 1901.

Book number 19 in the ‘Amateur Photographer’ library series, this is packed with data and advice on exposing and processing film or plates. What I really love about this one is the advertising. Lots on Goerz cameras (I have one) and camera dealers in London and beyond. The names of the products are great too. I wish I could still buy a Wray Platystigmat lens or some Ozotype solution…

The British Journal Photographic Almanac 1950

“Ninety-First Year of Publication” it says on the cover, so it’s been going since 1860. -

the BJP (British Journal of Photography) is even older than that and still going strong (now as ) to avoid confusion with the Bharatiya Janata Party of India.

This is an excellent book for camera collectors. Loads of wonderful ads and an extensive illustrated section on ‘new goods’ listing all sorts of gadgets and products to tempt the photographer. I’d like a few of these to cover different periods. The 1950s volumes are the most plentiful and cheap. The older the edition the more expensive of course.

The Wellington Photographic Handbook, tenth edition circa 1920.

Not the most exciting book here but the illustrations are particularly fine and there’s some good stuff on enlarger and darkroom design. I particularly like the note on the factory at Elstree, near London where the “pure dust-free air affords ideal manufacturing conditions” Well, maybe 100 years ago...

Penrose’s Pictorial Annual 1904-5

Subtitled “the Process Year Book” and “an Illustrated Review of the Graphic Arts” this is a lavishly produced collection of an extraordinary number of different printing processes. Produced for the printing and publishing industry so it’s concerned with ink on paper rather than light-sensitive materials there’s nonetheless a lot on the reproduction of photographic images. Lots of colour plates with every company featured endeavouring to wow the reader and impress their rivals, it’s a fantastic piece of Edwardiana.

I have, of course quite a few modern-day handbooks which I use for information rather than collect, but they can wait for a post of their own. These old ones are almost redundant now but they occasionally yield some useful information and they're a wonderful insight into both amateur and professional photography from the past.

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