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“We Carry With Us Precious Memorials” | Harvard Class Photograph Albums 1852–1865

February 20–June 29, 2015
Pusey Library, Harvard Yard

Presented in partnership by the Weissman Preservation Center and the Harvard University Archives


Oliver Wendell Holmes
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Class of 1861 Album
George Kendall Warren
Salted paper print, 1861
HUD 261.04.2 F. Harvard University Archives

“No friendships of after-life begin to equal in ardor and intensity those of college days,” Charles Carroll Tower, Harvard Class of 1855, mused. “[T]hanks to the aid of photography we are enabled, as we take leave of each other today, to carry with us precious memorials of college associations.” With the introduction of photography in the mid-19th century, Harvard graduates could remember their college years with a new fidelity—whether through autographed images of classmates, formal portraits of faculty, or graceful scenes of Harvard Yard.


Harvard commissioned photographers from prestigious studios in Cambridge and Boston, a bustling center of photographic activity and innovation. The earliest class pictures, taken of 85 graduating seniors in 1852, were daguerreotypes, unique images on a silver plate. From 1853 to 1864, class photographs took the form of salted paper prints, the first negative-to-positive technique. Year by year, photographers perfected the science and artistry of this pioneering process, producing beautifully composed images with remarkable detail and tonal rendition.


Seniors assembled the collection of images into custom-made albums. Over time, graduates added later photographs and inscriptions, creating new narratives spun from the web of their college bonds. The class albums, housed in the Harvard University Archives, began as simple notebooks and by the 1860s had transformed into handsome, gilt-edged tomes. The poignant reminiscences and elaborate embellishments through the years reflect the evocative ways in which graduates commemorated this formative period of their lives for themselves and for posterity—at the moment when Harvard itself was transitioning from a provincial college into a major university.


View Selected Harvard Class Albums




Salt Print Initiative at Harvard

We Carry with Us Precious Memorials: Harvard Class Photograph Albums 1852-1865 is part of a university-wide project undertaken by the Weissman Preservation Center (WPC) to preserve and enhance access to salt prints at Harvard. The project focuses on photogenic drawings, paper negatives, and salted paper prints found throughout the University’s libraries, archives, and museums.

Harvard’s salt print collections broaden our understanding of seminal technological developments in photography and pioneering uses of the medium. The University holds a wealth of rare materials illustrating advances by early experimenters, as well as photographs by noted practitioners who used the process once it became a commercial technique. Students and scholars will find, for example, the work of William Henry Fox Talbot, Giacomo Arena, James Wallace Black, Mathew Brady, Maxime Du Camp, Frédéric Flachéron, James Graham, John Greene, David Octavius Hill, Charles Marville, James Robertson, George Shepherd, Julian Vannerson, George Kendall Warren, John Adams Whipple, and John Wood.

Julian Vannerson
Salted paper print, 1857-1858
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 2004.1.144.53


The WPC seeks to enhance our understanding of these rare photographs and to ensure their long-term preservation. Programs include workshops on the history and identification of the medium; condition surveys; guidelines for housing and storage; conservation treatment; material analyses; cataloging and digitization of selected collections; exhibition; website development; and a symposium. Through these programs and recent advances in material analyses, a wealth of data about Harvard’s early paper photographs is being uncovered— information that helps to inform our understanding of how the salt print process evolved from an experimental method to an established technique. By providing an opportunity for a cross-disciplinary exchange among conservators, curators, collection managers, scholars, faculty, and students, the salt print initiative opens exciting avenues for the creative use of Harvard’s photographic resources in object-based learning.

Participating Harvard Repositories

Andover-Harvard Theological Library
Botany Libraries
Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology
Fine Arts Library
Harvard Art Museums
Harvard Law School Library
Harvard Map Collection
Harvard University Archives
Houghton Library
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
Tozzer Library 



Salt Print Processes: Photogenic Drawings

two leaves
"Photogenic Drawing of Two Leaves"
William Henry Fox Talbot
Photogenic drawing, c. 1839
Houghton Library, Harvard University
Typ Pr 805.T820.74 Sz1


In 1834, five years before the invention of photography was publicly announced, William Henry Fox Talbot, the English inventor, botanist, and amateur artist, began to experiment with the idea of recording the natural scene onto a fixed surface. Talbot’s contributions laid the foundation for the negative-to-positive process, from which most 19th- and 20th-century photographs were derived.

Talbot’s early attempts included images he made without a camera, which he called photogenic drawings, meaning drawings produced by light. In general, the process involved sensitizing writing paper by dipping it in a solution of sodium chloride and coating one side with silver nitrate, which created a light-sensitive compound. An impression of an object was then made by placing it on the sensitized side of the paper and exposing it to the sun. In the resulting image, the exposed background areas appeared dark and the shadow left by the object appeared light. Talbot often created impressions of materials with delicate, intricate patterns, such as botanical specimens or lace.

Talbot then made photogenic drawing negatives with a camera, which allowed him to capture landscapes and architectural views. From these negatives Talbot could produce positive photogenic drawing prints. To create a positive print, Talbot washed a sheet of writing paper with sodium chloride, dried it, and sensitized one side with silver nitrate. He then placed the sensitized side in direct contact with the negative underneath a sheet of glass in a printing frame, and exposed the frame, glass side up, to sunlight until the desired density of the print was achieved. Photogenic drawings, whether negatives or positives, are characterized by the fact that they were not permanently fixed, but only stabilized to slow any further action of light and prevent further darkening or fading. Images created from these early processes remain light sensitive and should be viewed only in select circumstances under low lighting conditions.

Top of tower
“The Top of Sharington’s Tower”
William Henry Fox Talbot
Photogenic drawing print, c. 1839
Houghton Library, Harvard University
Typ Pr 805.T820.18 Sz1
Tower at Lacock Abbey
"Tower at Lacock Abbey. Very Early."
William Henry Fox Talbot
Photogenic drawing negative made with camera, 1839
Houghton Library, Harvard University
Typ Pr 805.T820.178 Sz1



Salt Print Processes: Calotype Negatives and Salted Paper Prints

stone building
“View of unidentified stone building”
George Shepherd
Calotype, n.d.
Houghton Library, Harvard University
Typ Pr 805.S801.11 (N) Sz2


Between the years of 1840 and 1841, William Henry Fox Talbot further refined the steps of the negative-to-positive process. He produced a developed-out negative, known as a calotype. The calotype was a latent image process: no image was visible when the paper was removed from the camera. The visible image was produced by further chemical development. Like the photogenic drawing negative, Talbot could generate multiple positive prints from a single calotype.

To produce a calotype, a light-sensitive surface was created by coating a sheet of paper, usually writing paper, with a solution of silver nitrate. The paper was dried to some degree and coated with potassium iodide to produce silver iodide. Prior to exposure in the camera, the paper was given a final coating of a solution of silver nitrate mixed with acetic and gallic acids. Talbot then exposed the sensitized paper in a camera. He discovered that he could reveal the latent image, which had formed on the negative but was not yet visible, by washing the paper again in silver nitrate mixed with small quantities of acids. Talbot’s application of latent image technology greatly increased the photographic sensitivity of the negative and therefore reduced the necessary exposure time in the camera.

Salted paper prints were created from calotype negatives (as well as from photogenic drawing negatives and glass-plate negatives). What distinguishes salted paper prints from photogenic drawings is the fact that they were fixed. Photographers traditionally fixed these positive images with a solution of hyposulfite of soda or “hypo.” Called “washing out” by Talbot, fixing with hypo removed the unexposed silver chloride. If the print was properly washed, the technique rendered the resulting image reasonably permanent and allowed prints to be exposed to daylight without further darkening of the image. 

“The Woodcutters”
William Henry Fox Talbot
Salted paper print, 1840
Houghton Library, Harvard University
TypPr 805.T820.103Sz1