The Pencil of Nature at the University of Minnesota

Peter Martin with W. H. F. Talbot’s Pencil of Nature in the Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Minnesota’s Andersen Library on the West Bank

My St. Paul friend Peter Martin, above, knew there was a copy. I had seen a copy, too, in a display case in the early 1990s that highlighted the very specialized Mertle Collection on the History of Photomechanics; Pencil, of course, was the first book illustrated with photographs, hence its inclusion in Mertle’s unique assemblage. The library’s special collections had experience a massive relocation into the caves, the carved-out storage area below Andersen Library, during the late 1990s. Peter wanted to show it to a class he was teaching in the early 2000s, but it was not to be found. AWOL, within the walls or outside, no one quite knew. But Peter kept pushing, kept requesting, kept nudging me and a couple of other photo folk to help pressure the U to locate and serve up this rare volume.

And it finally surfaced; not a complete copy, and in somewhat rough shape. But it included Talbot’s well-known images and captions, and a surprise in the form of a paper negative. Peter printed the negative, and I may be able to persuade him to let me show it here. Can you imagine, though, having the chance to handle this masterpiece, this landmark of photographic history, in our hometown library, no less? It was a thrill to see it again, up close and in person, to hear how curator Tim Johnson found it tucked behind other material, and a credit to Peter’s persistence that it reappeared.

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