Friday, February 28, 2014

An Introduction to 19th Century Photography

Browsing posts, Pinterest boards, books, and articles about historical costuming reveals a wide variety of sources we use as inspiration; extant garments, paintings, fashion plates, and portraits are some of the most common. This is true for a lot of periods (although the farther back you go the more scarce extant garments become), because artists have been capturing the human image for centuries and in general we like to be memorably captured in our best clothes.

throwback Thursday: getting captured in our best clothes by eminent "street style" photographer Bill Cunningham in 2012
But something revolutionary happened in the nineteenth century: the process of using a mechanical device to capture an image and, using chemicals and light, create a semi-permanent likeness was developed. In other words, photography was invented. Depending on what you read, there are a lot of dates and inventors associated with the photographic process, and to this day both technology and artistic practices are constantly evolving and experimenting and changing what photography means. This post is just a brief overview, focusing on some highlights that interest me.

19th century tintype, source unknown
The Royal Exchange, London, mid 19th c. by the London Stereoscopic Company
There are two ways of looking at photography as a monumental contribution to our understanding of history (and our ability to re-create it): the subject and the photographer. Most obviously, photographs (or heliographs or daguerreotypes or ambrotypes or tintypes depending on the process used) are taken of something. This allows us, the modern viewer, to see whatever it was that the photographer saw when the image was taken. It might be what our street looked like in the 1860s, what a store might look like, or (of course) what people looked like/wore. Looking at photographic likenesses (rather than paintings or mass-produced illustrations like fashion plates) gives us a chance to inspect details, step into the every day, and witness historic moments.

Mass Ave, Cambridge (right near my house!), mid 19th century, via the Cambridge Public Library Archives
Harvard students at play, 1909, via the Cambridge Public Library Archives
The second way that I find photographs so important for history is what they tell us about the person who took them. In many cases (e.g., studio portraits, journalistic photos), producing images was a trade much the way it is today. But (also like today) photography was also a form of artistic expression, world exploration, and documentation. While certainly there are career photographer’s whose work is important for our understanding of history, I am most fascinated by the world as it was captured by amateurs.

photograph, 1862, by Viscountess Hawarden
children playing, Newcastle, 19th century, photographer unknown
While the roots of modern photography go back as far as the 1810s, it wasn’t until the development of the daguerreotype—the first popular photographic process, named for its inventor Louis Daguerre—and its refinements in the 1840s that portraits could be done relatively easily and cheaply. For the first time, taking a picture of someone or something had a relatively short exposure time and produced a detailed, permanent image. Thanks to the French government’s decision to put the Daguerre process in the public domain, the system took off to capture portraits, scientific findings, astronomical views, urbanization and modern architecture, archeological expeditions, anthropological studies, and an array of artistic experiments over the course of the next two decades.
Salon of Baron Gros, daguerreotype, 1850s via the Met
Two nude women, stereoscopic daguerreotype, 1840s [also they have tiaras!] via the Met
Landscape with cottage, daguerreotype, 1847 via the Met
The Daguerre process used copper plates coated with silver nitrate that were then treated with iodine fumes, exposed to light in the camera, and developed with mercury fumes before being “fixed” with hyposulphite of soda. In the 1850s, the invention of Albumen paper by Louis Blanquart-Evrard introduced the first paper photographic prints. Albumen was cheap, portable, and could be purchased in lard quantities. This further aided the popularity of both professional and amateur photography because while immediate development of the image (and therefore an on-site darkroom) was still required, it made the process cheaper for patrons, more approachable for photographers, and more portable. While not quite as clear daguerreotypes, albumen photographs could have multiple prints of a single image, and they were also much better for pasting into photo albums. While the daguerreotype stayed popular in the US into the early 1860s, albumen paper-printed photographs eventually overtook them it.

"Transporting the Bavaria Statue to Theresienwiese", Albumen print, 1850
As the photographic process became faster, cheaper, and easier over the second half of the 19th century, likenesses became a much larger part of everyday life. New technologies developed better lenses and smaller cameras, while new chemical approaches changed development. Stereoscopic images brought pictures into 3 dimensions. Births, deaths, marriages, and lazy summer afternoons were documented for posterity. Fabulous clothes were captured. We can see many of these images today in archives and online, which is a really neat way to jump into the past.

So I will leave you with a quote to think about, and some images to inspire you. What photographs have shaped your vision of the past? Do you like using them for research?

Photography transcends the bounds of time and space. It enables you to see at great distances things that you could never see, to know things that you could never know, to see events that have passed and no longer exist. “ Grant Romer, PBS

unidentified couple on stilts
Expedition to Egypt, 1850
portable portrait studio, Ireland, c.1870
Bazaar stall, 1867
Read more about the birth of modern photography:

Articles at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Louis Daguerre, The Daguerrian Age in France, and photography on Egyptian expeditions

19th Century Photographic Processes and Formats and the Concord Public Library

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