Photographs as Book Illustrations

The History of Photographs as Book Illustrations

Projected images date back to as early as 1544, when multi-mirrored instruments were used to transfer the solar eclipse onto a flat surface for safer viewing. In the 1600s, this same concept was expanded with a device called the camera obscura, which projected a scene onto a paper for tracing (a semi-secret technique employed by many famous artists).

It was not until 1827, however, that a Frenchman named Joseph Niépce used a camera obscura, chemicals and an eight-hour exposure to produce the first permanent photographic image, saved on a pewter plate. (The image was a courtyard view taken from the window of his home in Gras. The plate is now housed at the University of Texas in the Gernsheim Photography Collection. It is sealed in inert gas and the mirror-like image can now only be seen under controlled lighting.)

Two years later, Niépce formed a partnership with Parisian artist Louis-Jaques Daguerre, who succeeded in perfecting the first practical photographic process after Niépce’s death in 1833, with silver-plate images called daguerreotypes. The French government paid Daguerre to document the details of the process, and that manual was published in 1839. Subsequent excitement spread quickly. Portrait studios almost immediately opened all over Europe and North America and daguerreotypes became the rage.

Books, newspapers, magazines and other publications utilized photographic images almost immediately. In 1840, French editor N.P. Lerebours commissioned a number of photographers to take pictures of important scenic and architectural attractions around the world. These daguerreotypes were then reproduced by engravings in a book titled Excursions Daguerriennes. Similarly, the California Gold Rush and Westward Expansion were among the first major U.S. historical events to be captured by the daguerreotype camera.

Ambrotypes, Tintypes and Paper

Improvements and newer inventions continued over the next several years, with the advent of glass plate ambrotypes in 1854 and iron plate tintypes in 1856. Tintypes proved to be the most practical and inexpensive of the three (with better image quality), and were widely used during the Civil War. (Hundreds of thousands of tintypes relating to the conflict were produced. Subsequent loss, damage and demand from Civil War museums, historians and collectors have now made them relatively scarce and comparatively expensive.)

Although an Englishman named William Henry Fox Talbot had experimented with a similar process using a camera obscura and chemically treated paper as early as 1833, his grainy images (called “photogenic drawings”) paled in comparison to the other photographic types and needed a longer exposure time. With continuing research, however, paper processing eventually became the superior technique and had mostly replaced other mediums by the 1870s.

Posed Photos for Illustrations

In the beginning, as with Excursions Daguerriennes, photos were mainly used in travel books to expose the reading public to exotic places and events unable to be seen by the average European or American. Science, engineering, practical life and history books quickly followed. It was not until the early 1900s that photo subjects began to be posed to represent fictional scenarios.


A series of books by Harry Whittier Frees involved kittens, puppies and bunnies debuted in 1915.  The animals stood on their hind legs, were dressed in doll clothes and held every-day props.

A very imaginative children’s series began in 1915 by Harry Whittier Frees which involved kittens, puppies and bunnies. They stood on their hind legs, were dressed in doll clothes and held every-day props. They performed cute, humanized activities such as lawn mowing, cookie baking, clothes washing, egg dying and sledding. They held rummage sales, went to school, cooked pancakes, gardened, rode ponies and fished. They also posed as nursery rhyme characters. The series continued into the 1930s.

Although the book prefaces claim that Frees used patience and kindness at all times to “pose” the pictures, it is painfully clear by the common blank expressions and stiff postures that these are all stuffed animals.

Two 1920s/1930s series called The Children of All Lands and The Children of America encompassed at least 23 titles. They combined low-quality photos of real children with semi-fictional text to describe their everyday life. Most of the books were authored and photographed by silent filmmaker Madeline Brandeis and included titles such as The Little Indian Weaver, The Wee Scotch Piper, The Little Dutch Tulip Girl, etc.

The Little Indian Weaver.

An issue of the Children of America series by Madeline Brandeis titled The Little Indian Weaver.

Books in the mid 1930s sometimes used posed dolls, teddy bears, children and pets to depict fictional scenes. In 1935, Gertrude Newman produced a marvelous first-person story about a doll’s adventures called The Story of Delicia. It was illustrated with photographs of Delicia as she played at a tea party with her mistress, was tumbled around by a Scotty dog, was washed in a tub and then hung by her toe to dry on the clothesline.

The Lonely Doll

The covers of a Lonely Doll book by Dare Wright.

The heroine of a Lonely Doll story

The heroine of a Lonely Doll story.

A doll from a cooking story.

A doll from a cooking story.

After the 1930s, photo books of this sort seemed to fall briefly out of style. But during the 1950s and 1960s, Dare Wright developed her innovative Lonely Doll series, which re-introduced the illustrative photo genre to the public. This semi-autobiographical series was remarkable in its symbolism and creativity. Wright’s low-contrast photo illustrations were often haunting, displaying startling realism and fantasy, and involved complex costuming and staging. She photographed her lonely dolls at the seashore, in the forest, in an abandoned house, at a ranch and in countless daily scenarios.

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