Once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing’, I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.
Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: reflections on photography, p. 10
Picture This, the theme for History Week 2013, invites us to reflect on history through the increasingly pervasive medium of photography. In this post, I will look at a group of recently digitised portraits from the museum’s Tyrrell collection of glass plate negatives, produced by one or more unknown studios in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to explore some aspects of how photography has changed and how it changes us.
These portraits were created more than one hundred years ago, before the advent of the ubiquitous digital ‘selfie’ (self-created portrait for social media and the internet), when methods of photography were slower and more cumbersome and the production of a portrait usually involved at least one person other than the subject. At this time the role of the portrait in the construction of the self, still flourishing in the digital age, was already well-defined.
At the time that these photographs were made, photography had already revolutionised the portrait genre, making it accessible to a wider range of people than just those who could afford the services of a portrait painter. Photography equipment, however, was expensive and ownership generally limited to professionals and wealthy amateurs. Most people who wanted a portrait photograph required the services of a professional and a trip to the photographer’s studio was still an occasion. Many of the people in these photographs may have been photographed only once or twice in their lives.
The democratisation of the portrait image was not the only change brought about by photography. There was something unique about the photographic portrait. In 1843, when photography was still relatively new, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
It is not merely the likeness which is precious in such cases — but the association, and the sense of nearness involved in the thing . . the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed for ever!
Photography’s connection to the real remains its defining characteristic and an inexhaustible subject for theorists and writers. Every analogue portrait photograph contains some trace of the presence of the person photographed, reflected by light and fixed with chemistry. Although the people we see in these portraits are, by now, ‘dust and bones’ to borrow a phrase from film-maker Peter Greenaway – they are still with us in their photographic reality. Susan Sontag likened the effect of the photographic portrait on the spectator to the touch from the rays of a distant star.
Photographic portraits were usually produced for commemoration of significant life events: marriages, children, entry into military service or a particular profession. The portrait photograph could also be used for publicity. Postcards for sale were made from portrait photographs of theatrical celebrities and those involved in public life. (The portrait above shows Sir Anthony Musgrave, governor of Queensland, 1880-1880, standing). Portraits of the deceased were commonly produced in Victorian times – an example can be viewed on the Powerhouse Museum collection database. In colonial Australia, many people had portraits made to send to their families and friends in their country of origin. A photograph was often the only connection to an absent or deceased loved one. Enterprising photography studios exploited the uncertainties of human existence:
Nothing is more desirable in a home than a perfect portrait of each member of the family. No one knows how soon the hand of Death may enter the door, and then the portrait of the missing one becomes invaluable, and no relic is so near and dear as a perfect portrait of a lost relative.
Advertisement for Eden Studios in the Melbourne Argus, Sat, January 13, 1900
Portrait photography could be a lucrative business. Crown Studios, the largest photographic company in Sydney during the 1890s, averaged fifty-five portrait sitters per day in 1893-4, a time of severe economic depression. The studio employed between fifty-eight and eighty-two operators, assistants and artists and specialised in producing framed enlargements of portraits advertised as ‘the very best adornment for the walls of our homes’.
The production of a portrait photograph required planning. Clients who visited the photographer’s studio made an effort to present themselves or their charges as they would like to be seen. They dressed for the occasion and took some trouble to arrange their hair. Miss L. Marsh, (possibly the opera singer, Lily Marsh) on the occasion of having her portrait done, chose to wear a beautiful hat. A similar hat can be seen in the Powerhouse Museum online collection database.
Once inside the studio there were other choices to be made: backdrops, props, whether to stand or to sit, whether to be photographed facing the camera or in profile. Smiling for the camera, and showing teeth, now the norm, was less usual in the 19th and early 20th century studio portrait photograph due to a combination of standards of decorum, slower shutter speeds and less advanced dentistry. It was common practice to be photographed with books, magazines or newspapers to indicate literacy or particular interests. One woman in this series was photographed reading a book on Esperanto, another couple reading the Saturday Evening Post. The gentleman in the photograph below appears to be holding a book illustrated with pictures of ships. The carpet draped over his chair adds a touch of ‘Orientalist’ style. All of these decisions combined in the performance space of the frame to construct a particular image of the self, a pictorial way of saying, “This is who I am.”
What people wore for their photographs as well as the props they chose can tell us something about them as individuals and also some things about them as a group. The portrait photograph was an opportunity to display proud possessions as well as fashion consciousness. Jewellery, an age-old signifier of wealth and style, features in the portraits of young women. In photographs we can observe not only what was worn, but how. The woman in the photograph below wears a necklace and no less than five brooches pinned to her blouse. A collection of light brooches or ‘scatter pins’ was a trend in the later Victorian period and can be observed in other portraits in the group. Motifs from the natural world, like the dragonfly brooch worn by the girl on the right in the photograph at the top of the page, reflected the Victorian enthusiasm for natural history. An example of a dragonfly brooch can be viewed in the Powerhouse online collection database.
The horseshoe motif in jewellery, seen in the earrings worn by the woman in the portrait below, was a trend inspired by the British Prince Edward’s enthusiasm for horse racing and appears in several other images in this group. Flowers were also a favoured accessory for both men and women.
By now you may have noticed that many of these photographs are showing signs of age. The breaking down of emulsion, probably caused by inadequate methods of processing or storage (prior to acquisition by the Powerhouse Museum!), has a certain aesthetic appeal, giving some of the images an almost painterly appearance. It also draws our attention to the materiality of the original photograph.
Until the advent of digital photography, photographs were uniformly physical objects. The portraits made up of bits and bytes on this page began their lives as pieces of glass. The glass was coated with emulsion containing silver halides which arranged themselves into particular formations when the camera shutter opened and they were exposed to light. A similar process occurred inside the darkroom when prints were made.
Roland Barthes wrote that photographs are not only perishable but mortal:
like a living organism, it is born on the level of the sprouting silver grains, it flourishes a moment, then ages…Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes. Camera Lucida, p.93
These marks of the passage of time form a striking contrast with the vivid detail such as textiles, hair and jewellery that are clearly visible in many of the photographs. In the detail below, evidence of retouching the irises of the two girls’ eyes with white highlights can be seen. Hairpins in the older girl’s hair are also visible. Glass plate negatives afforded a wide tonal range and, consequently, greater detail. These negatives are mostly ¼ plate size, much larger than a 35mm negative which was the most common size by the time film became the dominant format in the middle of the 20th century.
The glass negative was also a physical space where information could be recorded. Frequently the name of the studio, the sitter, and sometimes the location, was inscribed at the edge. Using current digital technology, it is now possible to zoom in and read the names and other textual information inscribed on the plates.
From the information on the negative we can surmise that Miss Wallace (or her photograph) may have been entered in a beauty competition. In the late 19th and early 20th century beauty competitions often took the form of slide show presentations in theatres as part of a variety of entertainments. Audiences clapped and cheered, (or not) as a way of rating the entrants’ images.
Portrait photographs tend to evoke the most intense and personal responses of all types of photography. The sense of another’s presence draws us while at the same time we remain conscious its artificial nature. At the time these photographs were created, the production of a portrait was a collaborative process, commissioned by the client and controlled, mostly, by the photographer. The final product, a carefully constructed representation of a person at a particular moment in time, the result of a range of decisions about costume, sets, makeup, lighting and props, may have been seen by only a few. Over time, some of these portraits have become detached from their histories and are now viewed by an audience with no connection to the individuals depicted. It’s unlikely that any of people in these photographs considered the destiny of their portraits when they entered the photographer’s studio on that day more than a hundred years ago.
Post by Kathy Hackett, Photo Librarian
Photography by unattributed studio/s, Tyrrell collection, Powerhouse Museum
Digitisation of glass plate negatives by Jean-François Lanzarone
Thanks to Glynis Jones for suggesting the hat and Eva Czernis-Ryl, the dragonfly brooch.
See more historical photographs from the Powerhouse Museum collections on Photo of the Day
Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: reflections on photography, Vintage, London, 1994
Alison Gersheim, Victorian and Edwardian fashion: a photographic survey. Dover, New York, 1981
Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin, London 1977
Angus Trumble, A brief history of the smile, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004
Anne-Marie Willis, Picturing Australia: a history of photography, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1988