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Out Of The National Attic

July 2024
5min read

One day in the mid-1840’s, old John Quincy Adams, then congressman from Massachusetts, sat motionless, bolt upright, for a full sixty seconds while a young man named Mathew Brady took his daguerreotype. We can see the bald, bullet head sunk into the upright collar of the time, the eyes staring clearly out of the deep-lined face, the actual look of a tired old man whose work was done. Although Brady photographed Andrew Jackson and John Tyler about the same time, Adams was the earliest President who ever faced a camera. With him, the scales fall off the eyes of our history.

How different it might, quite easily, have been! The camera obscura, a device which brought an image through a pinhole onto a piece of paper, to aid in sketching, was known to Leonardo da Vinci, who died in 1519. In the same century, lenses, correcting mirrors and even a portable box were added to this artist’s device, which lacked only a method of preserving the captured image. As it was, as early as 1727, one Johann Schulze discovered the effect of light on silver nitrate. A few men tinkered with his discovery, and there seems to be good evidence that one Joseph Nicéphore Niepce of Chalon-sur-Saône succeeded, sometime after 1816, in fixing permanently a number of images, but the first photograph we have today is a picture of a corner of his studio made by a friend of Niepce, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, in 1837. If—and it is a small, understandable if—someone had stumbled on the combination a century earlier we could look on Johnson and Pitt, see Washington and Bonaparte in life, witness the Terror and the American Revolution as they actually happened.

But the date remains 1837. Before that, as far as the pictorial record is concerned, war comes down to us from the Egyptian frieze and the Roman triumphal arch in a stylization which lingers in our own military art, in the delightful crudities of Amos Doolittle and heroic groupings of Benjamin West. Here are the generals, tastefully posturing in dress uniform; there a man leaps forward with the flag; a few paces behind behold a pathetic death scene, the dying man’s friends gathered about him, all of them politely ignored by the enemy. The real face of war, grubby, spread out and poorly arranged from the standpoint of artistic composition, was first glimpsed in the Mexican War by an unknown photographer, and in the Crimea by Roger Fenton, an Englishman who recorded the ports, the dismal battlefields and the groups of generals (most of them named after sweaters, or vice versa) posing in ridiculous cocked hats. There is, of course, no motion, no action. That had to wait for faster film and less cumbersome apparatus.

It was a half century before George Eastman began to place an easily operated camera in the hands of an army of amateurs, and a little longer than that before the photograph was widely used in print—in newspapers, magazines and books. In the meanwhile, the national attic filled up with photographs, daguerreotypes, stereopticon views and other pictorial materials which were never published, or seen by very few. Much of this treasure trove, alas, has been swept away, but a great deal remains—hi private hands, in museums, in the archives of local historical societies, in the vast Library of Congress. It has been leaking out more and more in recent years, in the form of picture histories.

This year’s crop of such books is the most impressive yet. Never was there such a display of American history even if, on close inspection, the range of subject is rather narrow. There are two books on Buffalo Bill, two on the Model T Ford and at least a dozen on the West. The Civil War, antique automobiles, and railroading, all regular favorites, are represented, making it painfully clear that the authors, or the publishers at any rate, are not very venturesome.

By their very nature, picture books must be subject to different standards of criticism from those applied to the purely written word. For one thing, any given word may be used time and again by author after author without risk of becoming tiresome. For another, it makes very little difference how well the written word is printed, or how tastefully the pages are arranged; both of these matters, however, are important in picture books. The successful picture historian is the one who taps at least one new or forgotten archive. Beyond this he must have some knowledge of design and layout, and know how to organize related scenes and present what he has found.

He must learn how to write text and captions which move along with the pictures, placing them in his argument so that the book reads smoothly, neither too endlessly detailed nor too superficial. Captions which merely bark “Oil!” or “Sanctuary” or “Texas Is Big” only serve to infuriate, and the day is past when the author can get away with placing his pictures helterskelter, or tucking them away in a special section, sending the reader after them with commands to hunt down Fig. 4 or Plate XXVII.

Certain limitations are forced naturally upon picture books, especially those which depend primarily on photographs. The still camera can record action, anger, laughter, war, peace and a thousand exterior manifestations of things. It can only approximate how and why and philosophical concepts, and there are many doors, of mind and spirit, through which it cannot penetrate at all.

Other limitations, however, come less naturally. They are, we are told apologetically, imposed by economics. The average picture book this year—any recent year—has a bright-colored jacket which only belies the grayness within. One volume, A Currier & Ives Treasury , by Colin Simkin (Crown: $10), does employ fourcolor printing. But even this, an otherwise pleasant collection of the lithographs which gave us our stereotyped vision of the Nineteenth Century, is far off in its color work from the originals. With this exception, nearly all the current picture histories have been printed in a dull, black-and-white offset lithography which drains the life and sparkle out of the pictures.

Letterpress printing, save in one book, seems to have been financially out of the question this year. Yet this exception, Changing America , by Andreas Feininger (Crown: $5.95), a fine study of the landscape and the gradual effect man has made upon it, from the cliffdweller’s adobe house to the great cities, puts all the others to shame.

With only such an occasional exception, American picture-book-making seems to pace briskly backwards. Divided We Fought , the best single-volume Civil War picture book to date, was better printed than later volumes, indeed fully as well handled from a printing standpoint as the 10-volume Photographic History of the Civil War which Francis Trevelyan Miller put out in 1912. No recent railroad book has matched the quality of Lucius Beebe’s Highball (1945), and none of the new books devoted to line engravings is up to the standard of Washington Irving’s illustrated Life of Washington (1855–59). For real printing quality in line work, one must return to the Nineteenth Century.

The reasons are clear enough. The publisher who contemplates a picture book is caught in a trap. He must offer something that will seem worth forty times the price of a current picture magazine. But, afraid to gamble on a sale of more than five to ten thousand, he must avoid letterpress, with its high initial cost, and find a cheap method. If he dared plan on selling fifty thousand, the differential might vanish, but he dares not. And so, at the publisher’s editorial conference, there are certain suggestions:

Gotta keep it under ten bucks (answer: offset).

Gotta bulk it up (answer: rough, thick paper).

Get Jerry to lay it out (Jerry gets $400 for four weeks’ work).

The combination of Jerry, “bulk” and offset (which can be good but usually isn’t) is deplorable, from the standpoint of keeping the historical record of this country.

The argument that sales of ten thousand copies will not warrant a better production is true on the record, but is self-defeating since the poor quality and high price combine to limit sales. Actually there have been two outstanding successes this season in picture-book publishing: the book of Steichen’s great photographic show, The Family of Man , which has sold over 350,000 copies, and Life’s magnificent The World We Live In , which has grossed $6,000,000. Both of these books, to be sure, were marketed mainly outside the normal channels of book distribution, but that is perhaps a significant clue.

A more direct comparison may be found in the art field, where the Skira and Harry Abrams books have built up a wide market by offering high quality reproduction of art works at a reasonable price. A real opportunity awaits the publisher who can open up a similar market for good picture books, historical or otherwise.

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