Photograpic Studios


Figure 1.--This donkey sure looks real, but it must have been a stuffed one. Surely a photographer wouldn't have had a donkey in his studio.

The mushrooming number of photographic establishments reflected photography's growing popularity. The early photographs were very expensive, but as refinements were made prices began declining. Greater volume helped to further reduce costs. The photographic record is one of HBC's most important sources of information. Each of these images is in fact a historical document.Props were an important part of a photographic studio. Many studios had their own stock props. There were also a variety of backgrounds in these old portraits. Resorts in particular had appraoriate background drops so that the photograph might have the atmosphere of the local resort. Cameras and darkroom equipment were bulky items in the 19th century. The chemical process was also more complicated in the years before celuloid films. Thus it was much easier for photographers to operate from a studio. Itinerate photography was feasible by the 1860s as demonstrated by Mathew Brady and the other Civil War photographers. One interesting aspect of studio photography is the poses portrayed. Here the technology was a major factor.

Industry Growth

The mushrooming number of photographic establishments reflected photography's growing popularity. The early photographs were very expensive, but as refinements were made prices began declining. Greater volume helped to further reduce costs. A mere handful of photograpic studios existed in the mid-1840s, but grew to 66 in 1855, and to 147 only 2 years later. In London, a favorite venue was Regent Street where, at the peak in the mid-1960s, there were no less than 42 photographic establishments! The growth was just as dramatic in America. The first studio appeared in America during 1839 and the country by 1850 had 77 photographic galleries in New York alone.

HBC and Studio Images

The photographic record is one of HBC's most important sources of information. Each of these images is in fact a historical document. Studio images from the second half of the 19th century comprise an important part of the images HBC uses to illustrate and investigate Victorian and Edwardian fashions from Fauntleroy suits to kilts. As a result HBC considers it important to assess the details of the operations of 19th century photographic studios. Thus background information on the operation, equipment, procedures, and posing of the subjects is helpful information in our effort to assess these old images.

Services

Photographic studios might offer a wide range of services. This varied as to the type of studio. An itinerant photograoher only offered one service, creating a photographic image--usually in a single format. Normally he had only a single plain backdrop. Carbival photographers also offere a narrow range od services, simple portraits, often tin-types. Small town photographers might offer a bot more than itinerate photographers. They usually has a choice of backdrop. And they would have arrangements with larger nig-city studios for more sophisricated services. It was the big city photographers that offere the greatest choice. They night offered portraits in different formats. This varied by time. Studios in the 1850s might offer both Daguerrotypes and Anbrotypes or even tin-types. Studios in the 1860s often offered albumen prints and Daguerrotypes. Adter the turm-of the 20th century we begin to see silver mitrate prints. Big city studios also offered clients a greater choice of backdrops. It was the services offered that really destinguised bog city studios. They could copy Daguerrotypes or other old photograpgs. This was helpful because unlike albumen prints (CDVs and cabinent cards, there ws no negatibe as part of the Daguerrotype provess. Ambrotypes were more difficult to copy. Prints could be made in a range of sizes. Color could be added through tinting or by painting over the print (water color, oil, pastels, or ink). There were many other types of portraits such as ivorytypes or opalotype.

Studio Layout

We have at this time only limited information on the layout of a 19th century photographic studio. Almost all of our images are understandably from the eye of the camera looking forward. We have little idea what wasbehind and around the camera. Old movies suggest that photographers often ised primitive flash. I am not at all sure that this was thre case. Note that there is never a tell-tale flash shadow in these old portraits. This suggests that flash was rarely used. This means that natural light was relied on. This would have required a studio with large windows and skylights. Of course there were wide variations in these studios. Some established photographers undobtedly had large well-appointed studios. Other photographers operated much more basic facilities.

Individual Studios

For the most part we have only view from the photographer's point of view. We have very few impages of studio. Some photographers, however, provided some information about their studio and operations. A number incluse interesting details. We will collect what ever information we can find about these studios here. Here the features and practices change over time providing us useful details about photography. We note references to facilities as well as practices such as post-mortom photography and house kills.

Props

Props were an important part of a photographic studio. Many studios had their own stock props. We have little actual information on this, but it presumably varied greatly from studuo to studio. Studios at beach resorts might have toy buckets and shovels for the children. Some even had a pile of sand. In other instances the customers appear to have brought their own props to the studio so prized possessions would be in the photograph. This was often the case for children who enjoyed being photographed with a prized possession. The props chosen thus can provide fascinating information about the child. They can also provide clues as to gender, often difficult to determine in unidentified 19th century portraits. The problem is that we have no idea if the props in a portrait are studio props or props that belonged to the individuals photographed. This is important because it affects how we interpret the significance of the props.

Backdrops

One interesting aspect of phographic studios is the backdrops they used. These backdrops were not invemted along with photography. In fact it took several decades for enterprising individuals to think up the idea and for it to become poplar. Early photographic portraits had plain, often dark backdrops. Only in the 1860s do we begin to see backdrops and they were rather simple. It was not until the 70s that elaborate backdrops become common place. The time-line and the types of backdrops varied chronologically and from country to country. Germany seems to have played an important role in popularizing the idea of backdrops and German firms sold these backdrops. The backdrops offered also varied from studio to studio. The more established studios, of course, offered the greatest choice in backdrops and the most elaborate ones. The inspiration here may have been painted portraits which often had elaborate backdrops. There were a variety of backgrounds in old portraits. We rather thought that studios would tend to offer backdrops in keeping with local conditions, but city studios commonly had rural backdrops. In fact city backgrounds are quite rare. We are not sure why that was. We note that studios in seaside resport towns commonly has beach backdrops. Studios in these resorts in particular had appraoriate background drops so that the photograph might have the atmosphere of the local resort. One source tells us that beack resort backdrops were no unusal in inland cities. We can not yet confirm that.

Itinerate Photographers

Cameras and darkroom equipment were bulky items in the 19th century. The chemical process was also more complicated in the years before celuloid films. Thus it was much easier for photographers to operate from a studio. Itinerate photography was feasible by the 1860s as demonstrated by Mathew Brady and the other Civil War photographers. These itinerate photographers moved by horse and buggy. Many smaller towns did not have photographic studios. Often rural residents rarely got to down so itinerate photographers went to them. Not all intinerate photgraphers operated by horse and buggy. There were also photographers which operated from trains. Photographers operated from railroad photgraphic galleries. These railroad photographers travelled from town to town while customers posed inside the train car.

Posing

One interesting aspect of studio photography is the poses portrayed. Here the technology was a major factor. Early photographers were working with extremely slow speed plates. Long exposures wee rquired during which the subject could not move. This is why the poses are so uniformly stiff. It is also why the subjects is usually seated. There were also commonly stands in the back to hold the head still. In many portraits you can see the base of the stand. This is also why so many facial expressions are so solemn. It was difficult to hold a smile for an extended period. Modern observers often comment on how unhappy the children in these old portraits look and sometimes attribute it to their dislike of the often fancy clohing they are wearing. Much more likely is that the photographer discouraged them from smiling so a change in expression over the length of the exposure would not spoil the image. Of course this is a far cry from the modern photographer with fast film speeds who does his best to get the subjets, especially the children, to smile. An interesting aspect of old family portraits is who is responsible for the pose, the parents or the photograper. This is of interest as the pose suggests family relationships, a topic of some interest to HBC.

Studio Mount

The studio mounts on which CDVs and cabinent cards were pasted ontained a great deal of useful information. CDV and cabinent studio portraits in the 19th century which appeared in the 1860s almost always had the name of the studio and the city, and sometimes the address on the front. Thus we usually know where the portraits were taken. There also was sometimes printing on the back providing more information on the studio. This might include prizes they have won. This seems more common in Europe than America. And as some are dated, the awards can assist in dating the images. The style of the mount can also be useful in dating the portrait. Sometimes the parents have written a note identifing the individuals pictured, but in many portraits there is no such added written information. After the turn-of 20th century snapshots become common and studios developed new kinds of mounts and holders that did not indicate where the portraits were taken. Often the mount and the portrait were separable. One problem in using the information on the studio mounts is that the country is mot normally specified.








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Created: March 4, 2000
Last updated: 12:11 AM 6/10/2010