The phone call was routine, the kind often made
before big auctions. Sotheby's was preparing to sell a striking
rust-brown image of a leaf on paper, long thought to have been made by
William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the inventors of photography. So the
auction house contacted a Baltimore historian considered to be the
world's leading Talbot expert and asked if he could grace the sale's
catalog with any interesting scholarly details about the print — known
as a photogenic drawing, a crude precursor to the photograph.
"I got back to them and said, 'Well, the first
thing I would say is that this was not made by Talbot,' " the historian,
Larry J. Schaaf, recalled in a recent interview.
"That was not what they were expecting to hear, to say the least."
In the weeks since Dr. Schaaf's surprising pronouncement was made
public, "The Leaf," originally thought to have been made around 1839 or
later, has become the talk of the photo-historical world. The
speculation about its origins became so intense that Sotheby's and the
print's owners decided earlier this month to postpone its auction, so
that researchers could begin delving into whether the image may be, in
fact, one of the oldest photographic images in existence, dating to the
This week the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum in
Los Angeles, which own similar photogenic drawings that once belonged
to the same album as "The Leaf," said that they planned to perform
scientific analysis and further research on their images as well.
With these decisions, suddenly, a group of antique images known to the
academic and auction worlds at least since 1984 — when Sotheby's first
sold them, fetching only $776 for the leaf print — have become the
subjects of a high-profile detective story that could lead back to the
earliest, murky years of the birth of photo technology and that could
help to fill in crucial historical blanks.
Dr. Schaaf, who said he was not paid by Sotheby's or by the owner of
"The Leaf" print, said that he had been aware of the images — also known
as photograms, cameraless prints made by placing objects on
photosensitive paper exposed to light — for many years. He had seen five
of the six prints that were once compiled in an album by Henry Bright, a
Briton whose family was part of a group of scientists and tinkerers
active around Bristol in the late 18th century.
But as with so many other early photographic images, Dr. Schaaf said,
there was so little information about these that he never gave much
thought to their origins. "In most cases we just don't have any place
even to get started," he said.
It was when Sotheby's inquiry reminded him that the images came from the
Henry Bright family that he began to think about them again and to
connect the dots with research that he had been doing for years into a
group of photographic experimenters who had long predated Talbot and
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, the other acknowledged inventor of
Probably in the 1790s, according to accounts written shortly afterward,
Thomas Wedgwood, a son of the Wedgwood china family, began experimenting
with what he called solar pictures, making images on paper coated with a
silver nitrate solution. A friend of his, James Watt, wrote in a 1799
letter that he intended to try similar experiments and in 1802 another
friend, Humphry Davy, wrote an account of Wedgwood's experiments in an
article for a scientific-society journal, titling it "An Account of a
Method of Copying Paintings upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the
Agency of Light Upon Nitrate of Silver."
Like the lost plays of Aeschylus that were written about but did not
survive themselves, no known examples of the work of Wedgwood and his
circle have ever been found. But Dr. Schaaf, in looking deeper into the
leaf image, realized that these legendary lost images had something else
in common: their creators were all part of the close social circle of
the family of Henry Bright.
"The reason that I got so excited about this was that it was the most
solid, indicative collection I've seen," he said. "I'm fully prepared
for 'The Leaf' to have been made by Henry Bright, or by his father,
after the 1790s. But I've never seen a story that fits together so
He added, with the resolve that comes from more than 30 years of
research into early photography and Talbot, "Someone could obviously
come along and say that these images are all in fact Talbots, but they
would be wrong."
Jill Quasha is the photo dealer and expert who bought "The Leaf" in 1989
as she was building the Quillan Collection, a group of world-renowned
photographs that Sotheby's sold (without the leaf print) for almost $9
million on April 7. She said that it was still too early to say exactly
what type of research would be conducted on the image. Tests could
include those to determine the age of the paper and to identify the
chemical makeup of any substances on the paper.
"I think it has to be done quickly and efficiently and with the least
amount of damage to the photograph," said Ms. Quasha, who added that she
hoped the research could be completed within six months so that the
print could be put up for auction again with a more iron-clad, and
perhaps stunning, provenance. (As a Talbot, it was estimated to sell for
$100,000 to $150,000; if it is determined to be older, it could bring
But Dr. Schaaf cautioned that even when the all scientific evidence is
in — along with what might be found by deep sleuthing in the archives of
the families of Bright, Wedgwood, Watt and Davy — the best that experts
might be able to say about it being among the oldest photographic
images is "maybe."
"Somewhere in the course of the work we might find a smoking gun," he said. "But then again, we very well might not."
By Randy Kennedy
For The New York Times