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19th Century Photographic StudiosThere are photographers who pooh-pooh "backgrounds" altogether; but,
although it is no part of the purpose of this article either to uphold or decry their,
use, it may be said, on the other hand, that nothing can be more chilly, inartistic,
or devoid of invention (which should characterize all works of art) than the dead,
blank monotony of the once familiar gray background.
“Backgrounds and how to hang them”, the American Journal of Photography, 11th edition, 1890
In December 1841 Antoine Claudet received a patent for improvements to the daguerreotype process. His third specification read; “In taking Daguerreotype portraits a background of painted scenery is applied behind the sitter.”1 Backgrounds were used during the Daguerreian era but it was with the arrival of the carte de visite that they flourished.
The best studio photographers regarded themselves as artists. Art critics tended to disagree (Baudelaire considered photography and art mortal enemies.). The act of taking a photograph was mechanical. Real art needed imagination and creativity. The critics couldn’t see that in a daguerreotype, still less in a mass-produced carte de visite. One response was to bring art into the picture and place the sitter before a canvas painted with outdoor scenes or interior furnishings. Unlike drapes, which were often used to hide the clamp and brace that held the subject immobile, backgrounds were intentionally decorative. By using them however, studio photographers were challenging one of the basic tenets of early photography and one that many of them based their reputations on. Photographs were apparently objective artifacts of the truth but if the subject stood in front of a painted landscape, were they supposed to be indoors or out? Was the finished product a truthful portrait, or theatre?
Backgrounds identified the sitter’s occupation or allowed them to present some aspect of their character. A scholar sat in front of a bookcase while a woman of poetic sensibilities chose a forest, or a setting with a hint of ancient civilization. They could also be used more obliquely. One of the images in the exhibition shows Eugéne Lejeune standing against a scene of a ship’s deck. It could be assumed that Lejeune had some connection with the sea. Actually, he was a commercial artist and book illustrator who worked to order. It’s possible that when he posed for Camille Silvy the two of them thought it was a good joke to put him on deck. Just because some 19th century studio portraits look absurd doesn’t mean they weren’t meant to.
When the seaside became popular in Europe in the 1850s, largely because people from the industrial centres believed the ocean and its air were a tonic, resort towns like Brighton, Blackpool and Nice boomed and the photographers moved in. Usually, the people painting their backdrops, and creating the props, came out of the theatre where the emphasis was put on illusion rather than authenticity. Ironically, people often posed in front of a background of a beach scene while the real thing was just outside the door.
Avon Neal describes the society photographer Jose Mora having over 150 backdrops in his studio: “winter scenes, landscapes and seascapes, tropical vistas, ancient ruins, scenery from Egypt to Siberia, leafy bowers, vine-entwined columns, urns, exotic flowers, Moorish arches, neatly turned balustrades, steps and curving stairs, richly decorated Victorian house interiors, fine furniture and libraries stocked with simulated books.”2 The scenic artist Mora did business with was L.W. Seavey, one of the few to leave his name to posterity. Seavey published articles on backgrounds in The Philadelphia Photographer and Western Photographic News, indicating that by the 1870s the photographic industry regarded them as an essential element.3
Studios were also travelling abroad. When western photographers arrived in Japan and portrayed people in traditional costumes, they felt obliged to add an essential symbol of Japan, like Mount Fuji or a Buddhist temple, sometimes using the painted screens that already decorated wealthy Japanese homes. Judging from the number of local studios who started using similar backdrops, the Japanese didn’t find the idea patronizing. Influence worked both ways with western photographers learning to delicately colour prints with inks.
In 1890, Seavey exhibited his backgrounds at a photographic convention in Philadelphia. Not far away, George Eastman was showing off his new camera with the slogan, “you press the button, we do the rest”. Seavey may not have realized then that Eastman’s camera would bring a close to his career.4 Having affordable cameras in their hands, people no longer had to go to a studio to have a their portrait recorded for posterity. What was more, the new faster films and cameras meant it was often easier to photograph outdoors than in a studio. If they did need a professional studio it could come to them rather than the other way around.
By the turn of the century studio photographers were beginning to reject the decorative excesses of their predecessors. They no longer believed either that a photograph had any relation to the truth; rather, the truth as represented in photography was a decidedly abstract concept. The sitter’s personality could be depicted or even mythologized using lighting and camera angles. In portraying a dancer, photographers were much more interested in her physical grace than her descriptive appearance. To capture that they went back to earlier aesthetic principles, photographing the subject against a stark background. Like the prop, the elaborate background fell into disuse.
Not entirely. Studios working around resort towns continued to churn out photographs of customers sitting in fake boats and aeroplanes and though cartes and cabinet cards were almost extinct, people still went to studios for the personalized postcard. By now studios had a lot more resources at hand and the imagery was completely given over to the fantastic. They could put a customer in a cardboard boat, montage in a half moon or a wreath of flowers, have the print coloured, add text and a few hours after the sitting present her with a dreamscape.
What we are left with is a genre of photography that appears to be several things it isn’t. It looks like art but we’re not always persuaded. It’s portraiture but the background can leave an entirely unintended impression of the subject, and often it’s the background, not the subject that makes the image. The term ‘folk art’ doesn’t do justice because that suggests something idiosyncratic or created by an amateur whereas a lot of the images on show here are highly professional. ‘Kitsch’ falls short too because that implies an absence of taste. It’s no accident that now photography is digital and the studio has been converted to the laptop, contemporary artists have rediscovered some of the layered readings and other virtues of 19th century portraiture.
- Great Seal Patent Office. Patents for Inventions. Abridgement of specifications relating to photography. Holborn, 1861, (pg 6, patent No 9193)
- Avon Neal. Folk art fantasies: photographer’s backdrops. Afterimage, March – April, 1997.
- Seavey’s articles were not sighted for this article though several advertisements for his products were. For the record; in 1887 a Seavey rock sold for $4.50, an 8x8 background for $15.00 and a balustrade for $14.00.
- American Journal of Photography, 11th edition, 1890 pg 358