World’s ‘oldest photo’ could rewrite history books

The photographic history books could soon be re-written if speculation by a leading photographic historian is to be believed.

Picture credit: Sotheby's New York

Quillan leaf
The photographic history books could soon be re-written if speculation by a leading photographic historian is to be believed.

A photogenic drawing of a leaf that is currently attributed to British photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839 may instead have been produced more than 30 years earlier by Thomas Wedgwood, according to photo historian Dr Larry J Schaaf.

Fox Talbot and Frenchman Louis Daguerre are currently regarded as the founding fathers of photography, having revealed their respective photo inventions to the world in 1839.

However, Schaaf outlines the possibility that the image may have been produced in ‘1805 or earlier’ by a member of the famous Wedgwood china family.

Thomas Wedgwood is believed to have conducted primitive photographic experiments in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Writing in the sale catalogue for an auction at Sotheby’s in New York on 7 April, Schaaf asserts: ‘Sometime in the 1790s, Thomas Wedgwood began his experiments in trying to secure solar pictures.

‘He gave up on cameras and instead concentrated on photograms, placing leaves and other objects on silver nitrate coated paper and white leather to form negative images, much the same as Talbot was to do several decades later.’

A Sotheby’s spokesman said: ‘Such an attribution, if confirmed, would make this one of the most important discoveries pertaining to the history of photography.’

The Leaf is one of six ‘anonymous’ photogenic drawings originally housed in an album belonging to Englishman Henry Bright.

Schaaf’s speculation is partly based on the letter ‘W’ that – on close inspection – can be seen inscribed in an ‘unidentified hand’ in the bottom-right corner of the image and four others in the Bright album.

The picture has been in the hands of a private photography dealer representing the Quillan Company since 1989.

Sotheby’s director of photographs Denise Bethel said: ‘We know that there were photographic experiments that preceded Talbot and Daguerre and it is exciting to entertain the possibility that the photogenic drawing in the Quillan Collection could be one such thing.’

Sotheby’s UK office has confirmed to Amateur Photographer that this story is not an April Fool.

NEWS UPDATE: Sotheby's withdraws controversial image

Picture credit: Sotheby's New York

Leaf

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