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It looks like it will take a little bit longer to rewrite the photo history books. I just got off the phone with Denise Bethel, director of photographer at Sotheby’s in New York, and she told me that a controversial image that was to have been included in a sale next Monday has been withdrawn from the auction. According to at least one historian, the image could prove that photography was invented not in 1939 1839, the date commonly given for the birth of the medium, but nearly 30 years prior to that.
In the past few days the photo world has been buzzing about the image, a “photogenic drawing” (above) that until now has been attributed to the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot and dated 1839. However, the Sotheby’s catalog attributed the image to “Photographer Unknown” and included an essay by photo history Larry J. Schaaf speculating that the image was in fact may by Thomas Wedgewood “in 1805 or earlier.” Wedgewood was a member of the family famed for making fine china and was known for experimenting with photographic processes.
When the essay appeared, it stirred up a hornet’s nest of commentary from other historians. “We knew this was going to happen,” said Bethel. “We knew that if we put it out there we would get this discussion going.” With more speculation dribbling in, Sotheby’s decided to postpone the sale of the image until further clarification of its origins could be made. This doesn’t mean that Schaaf was wrong in his assertions. It does mean, however, that in the next weeks and months we are going to be learning a lot more about the birth of photography.