Despite the difficulties of transporting bulky equipment, photographers explored most of the globe in the second half of the 19th century, producing thousands of beautiful and fascinating images.
International travel was an impossible dream for most Victorians. Much of what they knew of the way the ever expanding Empire looked was gleaned from the work of intrepid pioneer photographers,
whose work was also sold as souvenirs to those who did travel.
The development of photography in the 1840s gave people a new way of looking at the world. Like children with a new toy, early photographers were keen to get out and record what was around them. Their cameras needed long exposure times, so they concentrated on stationary subjects such as landscapes and buildings. Generally, figures were included only for a sense of scale.
Pioneers such as Gustave le Grey and Charles Marville in France set about documenting their own land in the 1850s, while Felix Teynard and Henri Le Secq visited Egypt in the same decade. Linnaeus Tripe began to record life in India, and in the 1860s Felix Beato and John Thompson travelled in the Far East, and Desire' Charnay in the jungles of South America.
They all worked with little prospect of financial reward. There wasn't much demand for original prints, as they were expensive to make and beyond the means of most. Some photographers published their work in books or albums, but these, too, were far from cheap. Teynard's studies of Egypt, for instance, sold for 1,000 gold francs when new.
The first genuinely popular market was for stereo cards, which had two prints of the same subject taken from slightly different viewpoints with a twin-lens camera. When put in an appropriate viewer, they resolved into a single three-dimensional picture. One of the pioneers of stereoscopy was Francis Frith, who published a four-volume work on the Middle East in the late 1850s and at the same time released many of the images on cards.
From the mid-1860s on, travel photographs were produced in smaller sizes and larger quantities. From the 1880s, better methods of mass printing put pictures of the world's wonders in the reach of many more people. They were snapped up by travellers and armchair explorers alike. Photographers began making tourist photos in their studios. Models were dressed in national costumes and photographed engaging in 'typical' activities; Italians were shown eating pasta, Chinese were posed with opium pipes, and so on.
Such posed photographs appear quaint at best to modern-day viewers, but other travel photographs allow your imagination to travel in time as well as space. Many of the places pictured have changed; some are gone forever. While Victorian photographers complained about the 'clutter' of people, horse-drawn vehicles, street traders and building projects which intruded on their views of a cathedral or temple, today's collectors find much that is evocative in precisely these everyday details of ways of life that have long passed by.
Though original prints by the great names from the mid-l9th century are very rare and can fetch thousands of pounds, most travel photographs are considerably easier to find and to afford. It pays to specialize; you could concentrate on a particular place, or a real or imagined journey; alternatively, you could specialize in the work of one or more people or types of photograph. Stereoscope machines can be had for a few pounds, for instance, and some dealers will have literally hundreds of stereo cards for you to look through.
The main collectable is the vintage print, made by the photographer or his assistants. Mass-produced prints aren't quite so exciting, but are easier to find and very affordable. Large format (28cm/11in x 36cm/l4in or bigger) Victorian prints, taken by Francis Frith and the French Bisson brothers, among others, are a rare find. Photographic enlargers weren't available at this time, so these had to be made from large plates, a difficult process.
There are two kinds of photo albums you may come across. One is put together by a traveller, from commercially published prints, or - a rare find indeed - by an amateur photographer from his or her own negatives. Their value depends on when they were made and the places depicted. Countries where there are many collectors today, such as Germany, Japan and the USA, are more expensive. The second kind of album was commercially produced as souvenirs. Examples from late in the 19th century are not difficult to find.
Most photographic book illustrations were made by the photogravure process, developed fully towards the end of the 19th century. Prior to that - and later in the case of some self-conscious art books - prints were pasted onto sheets of paper and bound in with the text. Many such books have been disbound in fairly recent years, and the best individual illustrations sold off as framed prints.
Prints with creases, folds, tears or foxing (small brown stains caused by damp) should be avoided unless particularly rare or desirable. A print can be restored, at a price, but may be devalued by this.
Vintage prints of the 19th century vary in quality. Look for good contrasts and tones. Avoid prints with a washed-out look, which may have been made worse by their being kept on display on a wall. All photographs, old and new, should be kept out of direct sunlight, and preferably in a closed drawer, when they're not being looked at.