Thursday, April 17, 2008

An Image Is a Mystery for Photo Detectives


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.”


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