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Owen Simmons' 1903 'The Book of Bread', is famous in the book world as, arguably, the first photobook. But the usual green cloth trade edition doesn't fully convey how remarkable the photos really are. Almost never seen is the 1902 deluxe edition that preceded it, shown here. 1/6
'The Book of Bread' was a technical guide for commercial bakeries, but looking at the photographs now, more than a century later, they have the quality of found art. The trade edition has printed versions of the photos, the deluxe ed. has the original silver bromide prints. 2/6
Simmons - evidently a man who did not hold with false modesty - writes in the introduction: 'However critical readers might be, they will be forced to admit that never before have they seen such a complete collection of prize loaves illustrated in such an excellent manner.' 3/6
Simmons continues: 'The loaves are now reproduced photographically correct, of exactly full size, [...] as nearly perfect as it is possible for them to be by any process at present known.' 4/6
Interspersed with the silver bromide photos throughout Simmon's 1902 book are chromolithographs of complete loaves. Printed against a vivid lapis-lazuli like blue background on heavy card, these too have an other-worldly quality. 5/6
Martin Parr writes in his seminal photobook catalogue: "Here, at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the humblest, yet most essential of objects is catalogued as precisely, rigorously and objectively as any work by a 1980s Conceptual artist." 6/6
Much remains mysterious about Simmons' remarkable "The Book of Bread", first and foremost the identity of the master photographer who took these extraordinary photographs. He or she is not credited by name in the book, and his (or her) identity remains unknown to this day.
Also mysterious is why so few copies of the deluxe edition seem to have survived. According to the limitation statement and list of subscribers (mainly professional bakers), 350 copies were produced, a high number for the time - yet barely a handful of copies are recorded today.
A full set of scans (of the standard, not the deluxe edition) can be downloaded in PDF form from the Welcome Collection library here.
Some catalogue entries say the name 'Owen Simmons' was a pseudonym - this is incorrect, and likely caused by conflation of the name of the author with the name of the photographer, which is indeed unknown. Owen Simmons (or Simmonds) co-founded the National Bakery School in 1894.
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