Baby pictures, graduation pictures, wedding photos, senior portraits, party snapshots, and even cellphone “selfies” all share a common theme – a desire to capture moments that hold personal significance, generally of loved ones, family, friends, and self. This need to record and hold dear memories is not a new one; throughout history, we have attempted to record ourselves and others by the best means available, via cave drawings, hieroglyphics, paintings, sculpture, and in the past 200 years, through photography. While modern cellphone cameras and prolific social media venues have made portrait making and sharing an almost trivial undertaking today, the easy access to portraits of friends, family, and self we enjoy is the result of years of technical and aesthetic development in the field of photography.
Before the advent of photography it was prohibitively expensive for the average person to have a likeness, or portrait made. The rare skills of the artist making the portrait, the free time required for the subject to sit for the portrait, and the relatively long time required to complete a portrait combined to limit portrait subjects to those with considerable wealth and/or social station. In the 1500-1800’s, this was addressed by painted miniatures, to be displayed in a locket or small cased frame; the smaller image did not demand the greater artistic skill of a full sized portrait and could be completed much more quickly. In the 1700-1800’s, a wider audience was reached with shadow pictures, or silhouettes; while these images only offered profiles of the subjects, they required less skill and time to make.
When the daguerreotype process was first made public in 1839, the low light sensitivity of the plates dictated exposure times of about 15 minutes, limiting its use to still life or landscape subjects; no human subject could hold still enough for such a long exposure. But by 1841, chemical advances had yielded more sensitive plates, and Voigtlander, of Austria, had developed the Petzval lens, which was 20 times more light sensitive, or faster, than existing lenses. These improvements permitted exposure times of 10-60 seconds, short enough to contemplate portrait work.
With portrait photography now a practical option, there was an explosion in consumer interest in the mid-1850’s, reflecting a pent-up demand that the daguerreotype, calotype, and the later wet and dry collodion processes could address. While a daguerreotype could now be made in a much quicker timeframe than a painted portrait, and at a much lower cost, it remained a relatively expensive proposition. In 1840, a daguerreotype cost about $30, the equivalent of three or more months’ wages for the average person.
As such, portraits still remained precious and rare investments; for many people, they might expect to have only one portrait ever made in their lives. This led to a corollary concept, somewhat foreign to our current sensibilities, that of the post-mortem portrait. Given the high child mortality rate in the 1800’s, for many families the only opportunity to remember a child lost early in life might be a post-mortem portrait (a modern approach to this sad event is the remembrance service, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, or MILMDTS). Similarly, elderly loved ones that passed away might never have had a portrait made while living, so a post-mortem portrait would have served as a sole tangible remembrance.
This newfound portrait availability created a vibrant new industry; by 1850 every major U.S. city boasted portrait studios that operated on scales approaching that of assembly lines. The studios themselves were frequently purpose-built buildings with integral darkrooms and sitting areas featuring skylights and banks of windows, oriented northward to exploit the soft natural light that was controlled with a system of adjustable blinds. Teams of assistants would prepare sensitized plates for exposure, to be used by photographers as they cycled clients in line through a standardized pose for exposure, after which further teams of assistants would develop the plates for delivery shortly thereafter. This efficiency dropped the price eventually to 25-50 cents per portrait, but it did not lead to portraits that captured the individuality of the subjects nor necessarily present them favorably.
This lack of personality in the completed portraits was not solely a fault of the big studio process; the poor light sensitivity of the plates of the day required long exposures that in turn made posing for photographs difficult. While 10 to 20 second exposures were a great improvement over earlier times, they nonetheless dictated that subjects remain absolutely still during the exposure to yield acceptably sharp images. This requirement frequently led to the use of unimaginative studio poses, and a reliance on head and body braces or props to help the subject maintain a steady pose. For the same reason, subjects were not encouraged to smile, as it was much more difficult to hold a smile naturally and steadily for the long exposure – this is why so many period portraits display subjects with serious or dour facial expressions.
By no means was this approach universal, however; the Boston-based studios run by Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes from 1843-1863 elevated portrait photography to a level of fine art via an emphasis on quality over quantity. Almost exclusively working with full-plate daguerreotypes, Southworth and Hawes catered to high society clientele, and in their images sought artistic employment of light and composition, and a desire to capture the personality of the subject.
Similarly minded was the partnership of David Octavius Hill, a painter, and chemist Robert Adamson, who together formed Scotland’s first photographic studio and specialized in calotype images.Their original intention was to take portraits of the founding clergymen of the Free Church of Scotland, in support of a planned painting by Hill. This evolved into a refinement of their photographic portrait technique that prompted reviews likening their images to Rembrandt paintings. This success led Hill and Adamson to expand their work to include other notable Scottish figures, and more interestingly, common men and women from the fishing communities and the Highlands.
Back in the U.S., Mathew Brady began to distinguish himself in photographic circles. While Brady is better known today for his work documenting the Civil War (a separate but worthy subject,) he honed his craft in the portrait field. Opening his first studio in 1844 in New York, he began exhibiting daguerreotype portraits of famous Americans in 1845. He opened another studio in Washington D.C. in 1849, and in 1850 added ambrotypes and albumen prints made from glass plate negatives to his repertoire. Brady’s portfolio includes many famous figures; he photographed 18 of the 19 U.S. presidents from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley, and his images of Lincoln were later used for the $5 bill and the Lincoln penny. His studios employed such eminent photographers as Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, Thomas Roche, and others, and with them Brady also made many portraits of both distinguished Union and Confederate officers and common soldiers. Brady’s reputation was broadened when he adopted the use of the carte de visite (CDV), or card portrait, which had been conceived and patented in France in 1854 by André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri. The CDV was a small photograph, usually an albumen print mounted on a 2.5 x 4 inch card. These “visiting cards” became very popular for sharing portraits with others for publicity, marketing, or social purposes, and CDV’s featuring famous people were enthusiastically traded and collected in albums. Abraham Lincoln himself testified to the public impact of photographic card portraits when he was nationally popularized through their wide dissemination after his pivotal Cooper Union campaign speech in 1860, “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President.”
In 1863, 48-year-old Julia Margaret Cameron was presented a camera as a birthday gift from her daughter and son-in-law. This gift, intended as a simple amusement, inspired the development over the next 11 years of one the greatest Victorian era portraitists. Born in Calcutta of British parents, Cameron was a well-read and cultured woman, socially connected in circles that included eminent scientists Sir John Herschel and Charles Darwin, as well as artists and literary figures such as Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning.
Cameron had no experience in wet plate collodion photography, and its technical demands presented her with a steep learning curve leading to numerous early failures. Nonetheless, the allure of photography was irresistible to her, as she wrote, “From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigor.” This passion for the art inspired her in two creative directions: the first revealed her unique perspective for closely framed portraits; in the second, she envisioned images drawn from literary and biblical themes in unprecedented ways, evocative of the painter Raphael. Although she considered herself an amateur, she immediately adopted a professional approach to her art, copywriting, exhibiting, and publishing her work; within 18 months she had sold 80 prints to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Cameron’s “soft focus” portraiture style revealed the influence of her mentor, David Wilkie Wynfield, a British painter and photographer who developed a shallow-focus technique that in turn attempted to capture the painterly effects of such masters as Titian. While other photographers of the time strove for exquisite image sharpness and formality of poses, Cameron welcomed the ethereal and dreamy effect of diffused focus, carefully directed lighting, obscuring shadows, and emotive posing to reflect the character and personality of her subjects. Although many contemporaries in her day belittled what they perceived as the sloppiness of her work, she preferred the sense of life that her approach bestowed her images. Today we value Cameron’s work from two perspectives: many of her portraits have value simply from a historical sense, being the only photographic records of some eminent individuals; secondly, her aesthetic sensibilities defined an approach to photography that inspired the Pictoralism movement and established portraiture practices that photographers still use today.
In 1854, a few years before Cameron received her camera gift, a Parisian raconteur, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known by the pseudonym, Nadar, happened into the portrait field. Nadar’s prior callings had included medicine and journalism, and at the time he was a successful caricaturist when he was encouraged by friends to fund a photography studio to be run by his brother Adrian. When Adrian proved inept at running the studio, Nadar stepped in to rescue the venture. What marked the recovery and rise of the studio was Nadar’s endless energy and marketing acumen, particularly with the intelligentsia and high society of Paris. Nadar actively solicited portrait sessions with famous figures, and then circulated the images widely with his studio name prominently displayed. With lavish refreshments, furnishings, and art on display, he recreated his studio as a chic 4-story social attraction that appealed to the most elite clientele, which drew the rest of the population to him as the most highly sought after portrait photographer in France.
Nadar’s success was not due solely to his studio being transformed into a social hotspot; he also possessed serious chops as a portrait photographer. His studio settings were well lit, employing strong side lighting, and simple backgrounds that emphasized the subject’s face. He accentuated this with a patented process to fade out the image edges to a low contrast, the use of dark clothing, and hiding the subject hands, all with the aim of focusing the viewer’s attention on the subject’s face. In 1858, he was the first to experiment with battery-powered electric lamps for studio lighting. After much trial and error, he developed techniques for the use of directed lighting, diffusers, and reflectors for effect, achieving the Rembrandt-style lighting still popular today.
The last element of Nadar’s success was the relationship he cultivated with the subject. Nadar invited his portrait models to a comfortable studio setting, and engaged each client with a relaxed personal rapport. His boundless energy and enthusiasm, sense of humor, and attention to the client supported a photographic style that subtly included the subject as an intimate and collaborative partner in creating a great image. In his own words, “What can [not] be learned… is the moral intelligence of your subject; it’s the swift tact that puts you in communion with the model, makes you size him up, grasp his habits and ideas in accordance with his character, and allows you to render, not an indifferent plastic reproduction that could be made by the lowliest laboratory worker, commonplace and accidental, but the resemblance that is most familiar and most favorable, the intimate resemblance. It’s the psychological side of photography—the word doesn’t seem overly ambitious to me.”
(Next Time: Photographic Movements)
This is the eleventh installment of an ongoing series on the history and development of the art of photography. It is inspired by the History of Photography class previously taught by Professor Jeff Curto in the College of DuPage Photography Program. While not a slavish copy of his work, I freely admit to following Curto’s general course outline and sharing many of the perspectives he has developed. I would encourage anyone with a greater interest in this subject to follow his course online via video podcasts, at http://photohistory.jeffcurto.com.
A World History of Photography, 4th Ed, 2007 by Naomi Rosenblum
History of Photography Podcasts, class lectures with Jeff Curto from College of DuPage http://photohistory.jeffcurto.com
American Museum of Photography, “The Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes,” http://www.photographymuseum.com/sandh1.html
Collodion.org, “Scully & Osterman Studio, http://www.collodion.org
Cornell University, “Dawn’s Early Light: The First 50 Years of American Photography,” http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/DawnsEarlyLight/exhibition/lincoln/
George Eastman House, “Photography Collections Online:,” http://www.geh.org
Imaging Resource, “The incomparable Nadar: Master photographer, political cartoonist and balloonist of 19th-century Paris,” http://www.imaging-resource.com/news/2013/03/22/the-incomparable-nadar-master-photographer-cartoonist-balloonist-of-paris
International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, “Nadar (Gaspard Felix Tournachon),” http://www.iphf.org/hall-of-fame/nadar-gaspard-felix-tournachon/
Lensrentals.com, “The Heights and Depth of Nadar,” http://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2014/03/the-heights-and-depths-of-nadar-tldr-version
Mathew Brady.com, “Mathew Brady,” http://www.mathewbrady.com
Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879),” http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/camr/hd_camr.htm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Nadar (1820-1910),” http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nadr/hd_nadr.htm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Julia Margaret Cameron,” http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/julia-margaret-cameron
PhotoTree.com, “History of 19th Century Photography,” http://www.phototree.com/history.htm
Public Domain Review, “Photographs of the famous by Felix Nadar,” http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/photographs-of-the-famous-by-felix-nadar/
Victoria & Albert Museum, “Julia Margaret Cameron,” http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/j/julia-margaret-cameron/
Wikipedia, “Alexander Gardner,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Gardner_(photographer)
Wikipedia, “Carte de visite,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carte_de_visite
Wikipedia, “Hill & Adamson,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hill_%26_Adamson
Wikipedia, “Julia Margaret Cameron,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Margaret_Cameron
Wikipedia, “Mathew Brady,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathew_Brady
Wikipedia, “Nadar,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nadar_(photographer)
Wikipedia, “Southworth & Hawes;” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southworth_%26_Hawes