See the past through photographic books

On October 28, 2012, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Picture yourself with a set of great books on photography and the artists who bring the world into our homes and libraries.

By Kenneth Gloss

As popular as coffee-table books are today, showcasing everything from royal weddings to horses to Adirondack style furniture, it’s hard to imagine that at one time photographs in books were rare. Photographs first appeared in books in the 1840s. At that time, there was no such thing as mass printing of photographs, so each one had to be pasted into the individual books by hand. Of course, these books would have been very expensive, so it was quite rare for a book to contain photographs until technology automated the task and brought down the cost.

Since then, photographs and books have enjoyed a long and fruitful association. Until 25 years ago or so, photographs weren’t seen as a distinct collectible. Today, dealers specialize in photography collectibles, many of which are of interest to book collectors as well.

Around the turn of the century, many wealthy families made grand tours of Europe. This was before postcards, so tourist shops carried photographs of local sites. Visitors chose which photographs to buy for their album, making each album unique depending on what the owner selected. This is a fascinating way to get an idea of what traveling through Europe at that time was really like. Photo albums of the Near East, Far East and Russia are a bit more rare than albums depicting European locations. There are American ones as well, and some of these, especially ones depicting the railroads and California, are very interesting. Many of these travel albums can be purchased quite inexpensively, although depending upon which photographer’s work is featured, they can bring a bit more money.

One area of photography collecting that people don’t often think of is college yearbooks. I have a customer who collects yearbooks dating from as far back as the 1800s. What is interesting about collecting yearbooks is that all of the yearbooks from one year are not necessarily the same. Each graduate would get a catalog of available photos and pick the ones he wanted for his yearbook, creating a custom book just for him. Much like the travel albums, yearbooks differ depending on which photos each student selected. It was also customary for graduates to sign their photo in the yearbook, an addition that can make the book more valuable. For example, if you have a yearbook from Harvard’s graduating class of 1861, it may include a signed photo of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who later went on to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

Edward Weston and Ansel Adams are two of the most well known photographers in

modern times. Both Weston and Adams were prominent figures in American landscape photography, and both won awards for their work. Weston was the first photographer awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and Adams was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his environmental activism and stunning photos of the physical beauty of our country. Many who appreciate the natural beauty on which those collections are concentrated collect their photographs.

If nature photography isn’t your interest, there are other topics that may suit you. Maybe you would appreciate the city views that have become collector’s items as well. In our office, we have a large photograph showing the Back Bay area of Boston as a tidal marsh, before it was filled in and built upon, making it an interesting study in history. I try to take snapshots of the streets around the bookstore every few months. Individually, these photographs don’t seem like much, but taken together over a 30-year period, you can really see the history of this area; buildings going up and coming down, changes in architectural style, and changes in transportation. The most interesting part of the photo isn’t the subject, but what is behind it – what merchandise is displayed in the stores, what style of cars are around, what the store signs look like. Unintentionally, the history that’s captured there becomes the most interesting item, much more so than the people in the photo or the foreground items. Viewing a city’s architecture and history in this way is really fun.

One of the most enchanting items we’ve ever had in the store was a collection of photographs called The North American Indian, by Edward Curtis. Curtis wanted to document the Native American tribes west of the Mississippi River before their traditional ways were lost forever. His efforts won him funding from J. P. Morgan and the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote a foreword for the first volume of the collection. The North American Indian collection is made up of 20 volumes of large portfolio-sized photographs and 20 volumes of smaller photographs with text. At the time we purchased Curtis’ work it was worth $125,000, but it is likely worth close to $750,000 today. At that price, we couldn’t afford to keep it, but my wife and I did spend a wonderful weekend leafing through it, enjoying the detail on each page that you can’t get close enough to appreciate in a museum display.

When you are beginning your photography collection, one of the best things to do is to get some reference materials. Catalogs for photography equipment are one of my personal favorites. Some of these brochures are so well done they could be works of art themselves. There are huge numbers of books on the history of photography that will tell you which photographers were most popular, and which photographs are considered most rare. Just getting these resources could turn into a collection all it’s own. After you’ve read some reference books, go to shows, meet some other collectors, and talk to gallery and museum curators who deal with these kinds of collections. You will slowly but surely narrow your particular interest and gain the knowledge you need to be an avid collector.

We often think of photographs as supporting material for books. But photographic collectibles are becoming a field all their own, and one that can be quite fun and interesting to venture into. If you’re a collector of any kind, you can find photographs that will enhance and complement your collection. You can collect books about photography, books of photographs, or photographs of your favorite collectible, from yachts to chairs and everything in between.


Ken Gloss is the owner of the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, one of the oldest and largest bookstores in America. 2009 is the 63rd year of Gloss family ownership. Visit their Website at: where all of Ken’s free and open lectures are listed as well as much more information about getting books appraised or call 1-800-447-9595. Ken is familiar to many for his numerous appearances on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow.



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