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Wilson’s Photographics (1881) – The Most Important Photography Book You’ve Never Heard Of

Wilson’s Photographics (1881) – The Most Important Photography Book You’ve Never Heard Of

Video and high-resolution images from the photography book that taught Edward S. Curtis to be a photographer

In this video, we page through the 1881 photography book called Wilson’s Photographics, by Edward L. Wilson.

This is a book called Wilson’s Photographics, or in its full title Wilson’s Photographics: A series of Lessons, Accompanied by Notes, on all the Processes Which are Needful in the Art of Photography.

It was published in 1881, and when you look through it, you can see that it was designed to be a full photography education in one book.

The book that taught Edward S. Curtis how to be a photographer

This is an important photography book because esteemed photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) credited this book for being the one that taught him photography. Anne Makepeace mentioned it in her 2001 biography, Edward S. Curtis: Coming to Light, available on Amazon here. If you’ve never heard of Edward S. Curtis — he spent 30 years of his life traveling the American West photographing hundreds of Native American tribes just as their traditional cultures were fading away. His life story is quite remarkable. I have separate blog posts about Curtis here and here.

Self-portrait of Edward S. Curtis made in 1906
Self-portrait of Edward S. Curtis made in 1906. Public domain. According to his biography written by Anne Makepeace, Curtis learned photography from Wilson’s Photographics.

Curtis’ photographs were, in turn, influential on a generation of photographers and film directors — John Ford being a notable example.

Wilson also published a number of photography magazines between the 1860s and the 1920s, and Curtis was a reader of those as well.

This particular copy of Wilson’s Photographics was previously owned by a man named Frank L. Coes, who lived at 2 Coes Square in Worcester, Massachusetts. He was living at that address in 1940, according to census documents. Other than that, I have no information about Frank L. Coes. If you know about him, please get in touch.

Images from the interior of the book Wilson’s Photographics, published 1881

In the 1880s, printing photographs in books and magazines was much less common, so the photography book was illustrated instead with engravings and ink drawings. Here are some.

The front cover of Wilson's Photographics (1881) features a god foil stamped title, featuring the signature of the author, and a radiant owl sitting atop camera on a tripod. Around the edges we can see a Grecian-inspired border motif.
The front cover of Wilson’s Photographics (1881) features a god foil stamped title, featuring the signature of the author, and a radiant owl sitting atop camera on a tripod. Around the edges we can see a Grecian-inspired border motif.
The previous owner of this book was Frank L. Coes, who lived at 2 Coes Square in Worcester, Massachusetts.  He was at that address in 1940 according to the U.S. Census. Does anyone have information about Mr. Coes?
The previous owner of this book was Frank L. Coes, who lived at 2 Coes Square in Worcester, Massachusetts. He was at that address in 1940, according to the U.S. Census. Does anyone have information about Mr. Coes?
The binding of this old book has not fared well.
The binding of this old book has not fared well.
Portrait of author Edward L. Wilson on the frontispiece, across from the title page of Wilson's Photographics, which can be seen through a tissue flysheet.
Portrait of author Edward L. Wilson on the frontispiece, across from the title page of Wilson’s Photographics, which can be seen through a tissue flysheet.
The title page and tissue flysheet from the 1881 publication Wilson's Photographics.
The title page and tissue flysheet from the 1881 publication Wilson’s Photographics.
The camera is mightier than the pen or pencil, from the title page of Wilson's Photographics, published 1881.
The camera is mightier than the pen or pencil, from the title page of Wilson’s Photographics, published 1881.
Impressions of the letterpress typesetting on the reverse page can be seen on the copyright page.
Impressions of the letterpress typesetting on the reverse page can be seen on the copyright page.
1881 version of a camera backpack, from page 262 of Wilson's Photographics, published 1881.
1881 version of a camera backpack, from page 262 of Wilson’s Photographics, published 1881.
Engraved illustration of a typical camera set-up in the 1880s.
Engraved illustration of a typical camera set-up in the 1880s.
An illustration demonstrating how to cut oval window mats from the 1881 Wilson's Photographics.
An illustration demonstrating how to cut oval window mats from the 1881 Wilson’s Photographics.
This engraving shows a portrait backdrop system, complete with tension wires and pulley wheels -- the latest technology.
This engraving shows a portrait backdrop system, complete with tension wires and pulley wheels — the latest technology.
Wilson's Photographics even advises budding photographers on how to build and use skylights. Remember, in 1881, there was no electric studio lighting.
Wilson’s Photographics even advises budding photographers on how to build and use skylights. Remember, in 1881, there was no electric studio lighting.
An illustration of one possible studio set up, with natural light from skylight windows, and a reflector along the wall. From Wilson's Photographics, published 1881.
An illustration of one possible studio set up, with natural light from skylight windows, and a reflector along the wall. From Wilson’s Photographics, published 1881.
How to coat a glass plate negative.
How to coat a glass plate negative.
This engraving depicts a photographer working in the darkroom, from Wilson's Photographics, circa 1881.
This engraving depicts a photographer working in the darkroom, from Wilson’s Photographics, circa 1881.
This set of illustrations demonstrate what Edward L. Wilson calls "pyramidal compositions."
This set of illustrations demonstrate what Edward L. Wilson calls “pyramidal compositions.”

Thanks for reading.

Be sure to visit me on FacebookInstagram or Pinterest, or on my website at keithdotson.com.

~ Keith

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