Even the most jaded browser of photographic history collections will covet this handsomely produced volume of superb images from the 1840s to the 1950s. Organized loosely by subject matter (portraiture, social documentary, nature and science, travel), PhotoHistorica
contains more than 300 images by the likes of Julia Margaret Cameron, Alfred Stieglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Roger Fenton, and Edward Steichen. But the most intriguing aspect of this book, drawn from the collection of an organization founded by amateur photographers in mid-19th-century London, is its inclusion of unusual prints known only to specialists. A full page is devoted to an anonymous turn-of-the-century photographer's image of hairs on the wing of a house fly, a mesmerizing abstract pattern of tapering black shapes. German photographer Heinrich Kühn imbued a 1905 view of three women in peasant dress trudging up a sand dune in the midday sun with a timeless, iconic quality. The luminous effects possible in black-and-white photography of the era produced sensual depictions of nudes and moody landscape views, both rural and urban. During the same period, the Autochrome process--color transparencies on glass--yielded brilliant effects that look startlingly modern.
The "Art" and "Nudes and Fashion" sections contain some images we now view as kitsch, including Fred Holland Day's earnest photograph of himself as Jesus on the cross and Annie Brigman's outdoor shot of a nude boy with a wood sprite's antennae who ponders a symbolic glass globe. But the book, with helpful commentary by Pam Roberts, curator of the collection, chooses to embrace the spirit of wonder that suffused photography in its first century. And it's almost impossible to resist. --Cathy Curtis