Early Photographic Portraits

The Oxford Dictionary defines a portrait as a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.

The word portrait comes from the French word ‘portraire’ which means to portray and is based on an older French word ‘traire’. This is turn comes from the Latin word ‘trahere’ which means to draw.

The definition of a photographic portrait could be defined a little more tightly. In Michael R Peres’ book Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, Kathleen Francis defines portrait photography as that which “produces pictures that capture the personality of a subject by using effective lighting, backdrops and poses. A portrait picture might be artistic, or it might be clinical, as part of a medical study. Frequently, portraits are commissioned for special occasions, such as weddings or school events. Portraits can serve many purposes, from usage on a personal website to display in the lobby of a business.”

This tells me three things about a photographic portrait:

  • The subject is the main focus of the image and in it we should see something of their personality and character. I would add that although these definitions refer only to portraits of a person, the same is true for portraits of animals or groups of people.
  • It is constructed and carefully composed using traditional studio equipment, although I would add that natural light and outdoor environments can also be used successfully to create portraits.
  • It is commissioned by someone for some kind of purpose, whether that is for display or simply as a memento.

In the 17th Century artists were frequently using camera obscuras to project images on to a wall or canvas. Canaletto and Vermeer are two well know artists that are thought to have used a camera obscura, in fact Canaletto’s machine can be seen in a museum in Venice. We cannot be sure that Vermeer used a camera but there is evidence in his paintings to suggest that he did.

Officer and Laughing Girl

The perspective of the officer and the girl is geometrically correct but doesn’t really suit the style of other paintings at the time. The officer would normally have been painted smaller and more in scale with the girl. Also, the map in the background is painted so accurately and in such detail that it points to a camera obscura being used.

The first ever photographic portrait was a selfie taken in 1839 by Robert Cornelius.

It seems that he set the camera up, ran around to sit in front of the lens for over five minutes and then covered the lens again.

It was lit by the light from gas lights in his father’s shop.

It is a Daguerreotype that is now in the American Library of Congress. On the back is written the words “The first light picture ever taken, 1839”

Incidentally Cornelius went on to open one of the first photographic studios but only for a few years as he went back to support the family business inventing new types of solar lights that sold internationally.

As photography became more easily available, the demand for portraits increased dramatically. During the American Civil War not only did families demand portraits of their loved ones before they went to fight in the war, many photographers also set up ‘studios’ in military barracks and made portraits of soldiers to send home to their families.

Of course many families wanted portraits of their young children but because of the long exposure times they were required to sit still for relatively long periods of time. For very young children this would have been an impossibility if it wasn’t for their mother holding them and concealing herself somewhere out of view!

Of course at least the image above shows that the children are alive. It was also common among the Victorians for family members and especially children to be photographed posthumously!

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