[Houghton Library] Salt Prints Initiative at Harvard


Thursday, February 17, 2022, 12:00pm to 1:00pm



Salt prints represent the first negative-to-positive photographic technique. Introduced by Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839, it is the process from which most nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographic formats were derived. Collections of salt prints found in libraries, archives, and museums at Harvard University include some of the earliest photographic images created, and they represent a seminal chapter in the history of photography. Together, these holdings reveal technological developments in the medium and pioneering uses of photography across the sciences and humanities. 


The Weissman Preservation Center (WPC) has undertaken a university-wide project to preserve and enhance access to salt prints at Harvard. Salt prints represent the result of the first negative-to-positive photographic technique, introduced by Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839. The project focuses on photogenic drawings, paper negatives, and salted paper prints (positive prints created from paper or glass-plate negatives) found throughout Harvard’s libraries, archives, and museums. The term salt print is broadly used to represent all of these processes.

Through a series of initiatives, the WPC seeks to enhance our understanding of these rare photographs and to ensure their long-term preservation. Programs have included a condition survey of salt prints found in twelve Harvard repositories; workshops on the history and identification of the medium; guidelines for housing, storage, and exhibition; treatment of selected images; material analyses; cataloging and digitization of selected collections; publications; exhibitions; and a symposium. 

The project has provided a unique opportunity for a fruitful exchange among Harvard conservators, librarians, collection managers, curators, scholars, faculty, students, and interns. This cross-disciplinary exchange provides invaluable insights into pioneering uses of the medium and opens exciting avenues for the creative use of Harvard’s photographic resources in object-based learning in the sciences and humanities.