Every photographic portrait confers on its subject some degree of immortality. We take for granted the ability to know what a person looks like, since images of family, friends, and famous strangers dead and alive are at our fingertips through a Google Images or Facebook search. But until 1839 only the wealthy could have a likeness recorded, share it with others, and leave it behind for future generations. That year marks the announcement of the invention of photography. Within a couple of years, daguerreotypists were plying their trade around the globe, producing relatively inexpensive, highly detailed portraits and forever changing our relationship to our self-image.
By the 1860s the proliferation of photographers and photographs dissipated the magic of merely mirroring a face, although not the pleasure of owning or sharing one’s image. Additional demands began to be placed on the photographic portrait. On the one hand, it was employed to help catalogue, categorize, and explain society and the social order, and on the other, to delve beyond mere appearance to reveal sitters’ thoughts and emotions. That evolution is explored this fall in Cheating Death: Portrait Photography’s First Half Century, an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, drawn largely from the institution’s extraordinarily rich holdings of nineteenth-century photography.
The exhibition begins with a look at the first commercially successful photographic process, the daguerreotype, which yielded mirror-like, highly detailed, one-of-a-kind images. A spectacular example is a medallion portrait by the most eminent American daguerreotypists, collaborators Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes (Fig. 1). Southworth, a druggist, opened a daguerreotype studio in Boston in 1841 and was joined two years later by Hawes, a carpenter and self-taught painter. They became masters of the aesthetic and technical aspects of the medium, as is demonstrated in this oval frame containing nine portraits of a young woman.
The medallion was the most difficult and expensive portrait type of the 1850s; examples are rare. Cleveland’s seems to be one of only five that survive by Southworth and Hawes, who attained a perfection unmatched by the few others attempting this tricky process. To make this portrait, the daguerreotype plate was masked and a sliding plate holder, patented by Southworth in 1855, was moved around to produce nine separate exposures on the same plate. The photographers could not see any of the images until the entire plate was processed, so one blurred exposure would have ruined the entire plate. Southworth and Hawes had the woman turn her head slightly for each shot. The results show that even in these pioneering days of studio photography, they had already figured out the most flattering angles for presenting a sitter. One wonders if they would, given the chance, reshoot the profile portrait that sits at seven o’clock, because it disrupts an otherwise symmetrical pattern.
The multiple views provide little additional insight into the woman’s personality; her expression is similarly serene in all of them. Because close-ups provide no view of setting and only a glimpse of clothing, we gain little sense of her personal taste or style. We know what she looks like, but we do not know her. As is true of so many early photographic portraits, the sitter’s name and story are lost; only her image remains. We can assume one thing: because of its expense and the woman’s age, this sequential portrait was probably made to celebrate a singular occasion such as her engagement or marriage.
Photography soon became recognized as a valuable tool for those attempting to understand the world by documenting, identifying, and classifying all of its different types. Among the earliest photographers to explore both the artistic and societal possibilities of the portrait were the Scottish team of painter David Octavius Hill and engineer Robert Adamson, who opened Scotland’s first studio producing photographs on paper in 1843. Their four-year collaboration yielded around three thousand images.
While daguerreotypes were one-of-a-kind images, Hill and Adamson pursued a still-experimental process called calotype that yielded multiple prints from a single negative: exposing paper negatives and making prints on paper from them. The process’s disadvantages included a grainier, less-detailed image, but the possibility of multiple prints was a great advantage. Shooting outdoors in bright light allowed them to shorten the long exposure times. The duo masterfully controlled the light to push the background into shadow and highlight important details.
Many of Hill and Adamson’s portraits depict Edinburgh’s elite and artistic circles, but the men also undertook what may be the first social documentary project, systematically photographing the working class. Commercial fishing was an important industry in the region. Hill and Adamson produced numerous portraits of the fishwives in the villages around Edinburgh (Fig. 2). The women, garbed in distinctive striped aprons, cleaned their husbands’ catch, then carried it to market in wicker baskets. They were reputed to be tough bargainers, no doubt because they were well aware of the hard work and serious risk required to procure their wares. Hill and Adamson respectfully recorded not only their likenesses but often their names. Portraits of workers with the tools of their trade would later be termed “occupationals” by collectors and historians.
French naturalist Jacques-Philippe Potteau (1807-1876) spent much of the 1860s producing a series of ethnographic portraits for the Museum of Natural History in Paris such as Matra Reinhard, 1868 (Fig. 5). Such an endeavor would be considered morally, ethically, and scientifically questionable today, but was accepted as valid science at the time. To carry out his anthropological project, Potteau employed the standard commercial portrait studio conventions of the period, carefully posing his subject in an even light. However, instead of a commercial studio’s painted backdrop suggesting wealth or a leisurely setting, he employed a plain background. She is, after all, a specimen. On the mount he has carefully recorded her name and age, that she was born in Paris to Bohemian parents, and stands three and one-half feet tall. The resultant photograph, despite its quasi-scientific purpose, is a beautiful, sympathetic portrait of a serious five-year-old in a ripped dress.
As was true for Southworth and Hawes’s unknown subject, Matra’s expression may derive more from the situation than from her personality. The processes used during the medium’s first half century required exposure times ranging from several seconds to as long as five minutes. This affected both pose and expression. Stratagems to keep the sitter’s head from wobbling, and thus blurring the image, ranged from steel braces that screwed around the skull to poses that supported the chin with the arm. Hands could be steadied by clasping them, holding onto props, folding arms, or cropping unruly extremities out of the frame.
Today we are always told to “smile for the camera,” but nineteenth-century sitters would have been given the opposite advice. Even as exposure times shortened and poses became freer, it remained difficult to hold a smile still enough to prevent blurring. Thus the somber mien of all the subjects in the exhibition, which contains not a single smiling face. In addition, sitting for a photograph in the mid-nineteenth century was a solemn, formal occasion directed by a professional photographer or occasionally, a serious amateur. The experts’ near monopoly lasted until 1888 when Kodak brought out the first snapshot camera.
Children were, and have remained, particularly cherished subjects for photography. They were photographed to preserve the memory of their stages of growth, as they still are, and so that distant relatives could see them. And for a sadder reason as well. In 1840 an estimated onethird of children died before age five. Photography offered grieving parents the opportunity to immortalize the deceased and share the likeness with out-of-town family and friends. This tragic genre of photographs, later dubbed “postmortems,” often depict the children attired in fine clothing, lying down with eyes shut, as if merely napping (see Fig. 4).
During the Victorian era childhood began to be worshipped as a blessed time to be cherished and lauded. Many of the classics of children’s literature were written in that era, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, whose author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, was a mathematician, lecturer at Oxford, church deacon, and serious amateur photographer. Although he photographed many different types of subject matter, Dodgson is best known for his portraits of children, which broke free from the formal, formulaic quality of studio portraiture of the era.
Dodgson told stories to keep his young sitters amused and still during long exposures, but posing was nonetheless trying. Julia and Ethel Arnold were ten and six years old when they posed in Carroll’s rooftop studio at Christ Church College, Oxford, on June 15, 1872 (Fig. 6). Fifty-seven years later Ethel reminisced that “for a nervous child…to keep still for forty-five seconds at a time was no mean ordeal.”1 Nonetheless, she regarded time spent with Carroll as “oases of brightness in a somewhat gray and melancholy childhood.”2
Many commercial portrait photographers hoped to convey more than mere appearance, but it was a woman pursuing photography as art, Julia Margaret Cameron, who succeeded. Her photograph Julia Jackson, 1867, is a haunting portrait of the artist’s beloved niece, namesake, goddaughter, and favorite model that was recently acquired by the museum (Fig. 9). At a time when most women had two or three photographs taken during their lifetime, Cameron created around fifty portraits of Jackson, who had a national reputation as a beauty, and also posed for several other artists.3
As in Southworth and Hawes’s medallion portrait, cropping eliminates external clues such as setting and costume. But Cameron provides other types of clues to her sitter’s personality and situation. Jackson is shown at age twenty-one, preparing for a crucial juncture in the life of a Victorian maiden: in a few weeks she would marry and make the transition from girl to woman. There is little that is childlike in Cameron’s boldly modern, daringly frontal close-up. Instead of confrontation, however, there is the suggestion of reflection and self-questioning. Jackson’s intense gaze is more characteristic of peering into a looking glass than posing before a camera lens. Cameron’s usual soft focus here implies a latency and sense of becoming appropriate to this transformational moment in a woman’s life.
Jackson’s loose, flowing tresses are sensual and would have indicated, at least to Victorian viewers, that this was an intimate, private moment. A woman of her age would not have appeared in public with her hair down. In fact, in a commercial studio portrait taken around the same time, Jackson is primly coiffed and her expression appropriately genteel. However, an occasional breech of social propriety could be permitted for the sake of art. Jackson went on to marry twice and became the mother of seven children including Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.
Most intriguing of all about this particular image of Jackson is that it is a reversal of another portrait of her in the museum’s collection, Julia Jackson Duckworth (1846 -1895), also made in 1867 (Fig. 10).4 The pair constitutes half of a group of four works- one “original” and three variants-all based on the same negative. Cameron experimented with reversals on only seven other negatives; this portrait of her niece is her most complex exploration of the process. Cameron seems to have considered all four interpretations as valid, as she produced multiple prints of each of them. It is posited by Cameron scholars that each is a reversal of the previous image in the series. Human faces are not perfectly bilaterally symmetrical; reversing an image of a face changes it.
Cameron’s reversals of Jackson’s face, along with her habitual use of soft focus, strongly suggest that she valued emotional expression more than she cared about producing an accurate depiction of her niece. With Cameron’s work, the photographic portrait came into the modern age, advancing from commerce to art and from physiognomic depiction to evocation of a sitter’s inner essence, her soul.
Cheating Death: Portrait Photography’s First Half Century is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through February 5, 2017.
1 Ethel M. Arnold, “Reminiscences of Lewis Carroll,” The Windsor Magazine, vol. 71 (1929), p. 45. 2 Ibid., p. 46. 3 Information on Cameron’s portraits of Julia Jackson is drawn largely from two sources: Julian Cox and Colin Ford with contributions by Joanne Lukitsh and Philippa Wright, Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs (Getty Publications, Los Angeles, 2003); and Sylvia Wolf, with contributions by Stephanie Lips- comb, Debra N. Mancoff, and Phyllis Rose, Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women (Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press, Chicago and New Haven, 1998). I am also indebted to Andrea Wolk Rager, Jesse Hauk Shera Assistant Professor at Case Western Reserve University, for her insights into these portraits and Victorian womanhood. 4 Cameron titled the same photographs of her niece variously on different prints, sometimes using the sitter’s maiden name, Julia Jackson, and other times referring to her married name, Julia Jackson Duckworth or Mrs. Herbert Duckworth.
BARBARA TANNENBAUM is the curator of photography at the Cleveland Museum of Art.