Friday, June 29, 2012

Occupational Images: Artisans of the Photographic Studio

Part of an intermittent series featuring "occupational" images that have appeared online.

People were undeniably the focus of nineteenth-century photographic portraits, but it's easy to forget the innumerable other details went into the composition and construction of photographs. First and foremost were the photographers, artists who occasionally turned their lenses on themselves.

Note that this 1870s photographer sits in front of a plain backdrop on grass and also appeared in a different pose.

Most photographic studios features a variety of painted backdrops. Often these canvases and artificial walls depicted quiet garden or domestic scenes that literally faded into the background. But sometimes photographers stocked backdrops that complimented the mindsets and costumes of their subjects, as in these three images (to take only a small sample):

Three mid-late nineteenth-century tintypes with unique backdrops.

Such backdrops were painted, with various degrees of realism, by professional artists who most likely also worked on murals, houses, and even fine art. Occasionally, these backdrop artists had their photographs taken as if caught in the act of preparing the studio.

This 1850s daguerreotype shows a studio backdrop painter at work in his shirtsleeves and straw hat (William Brown dated this image to between 1853 and 1855, Thoughts on Men's Shirts in America 1750-1900, 88).

1870s tintype and CDV of probable backdrop painters. The man on the right, whose photograph was taken in Marion, Ohio, may actually be a house painter (as indicated by his larger bucket and brush) using a studio backdrop as a prop.

 A late nineteenth-century backdrop painter in two views, Collection Jim Linderman. See this blog and book on the subject as well.

A painted backdrop had the advantage of stillness over outdoor scenes, critical because even minute movement caused blurs in early photographs with longer exposure times. This was true for daguerreotypes (on silvered copper), ambrotypes (on glass), ferrotypes (on iron, commonly called tintypes), as well as other photographic processes and their associated paper prints. Even though exposure times in the second half of the nineteenth century were a matter of seconds (contrary to long-standing myths), subjects required metal braces to hold their bodies and necks in one stable position during a photograph. Thus the small tripod feet visible behind many individuals in such images as well as the prop in this 1880s tintype:

Man tinkering with photographic neck brace. Rather than a builder of these braces, he is probably another type of tradesman who simply took the neck brace as a convenient prop for the photo.

Once the standing, bracing, and photographing was over, customers could upgrade their purchase with a variety of solid and paper prints as well as coloring. Here's an example from my collection of a tinted ambrotype.

Tintype 1850s ambrotype, author's collection.

Such tinting was most often done in-house by photographic colorists who used different media depending on the photographs they prepared.

CDV of colorists with CDVs, 1860s.

Colorist working with paper prints, 1860s. 

Colorist with framed full plate tintype, 1880s.

Of course, some photographers were versatile artists who combined a variety of trades into their new pursuit. It's thanks to people like these, along with the other tradesmen who built cameras, painted backdrops, and printed photographs, that we have such vivid and moving images of the nineteenth century.

1860s CDV of photographer/artist.

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