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19th Century Photographic Studios

General Information
Hand painted backdrops were generally executed on raw cotton duct fabric using tempera paint or chalk. Landscape views and interior walls with architectural elements provided the painted illusion behind actual furniture or props. The cotton canvas was at times loose or put on wooden stretcher and then suspended from metal channel or wires within the portrait studio. Various hooks, rollers, or hinges were utilized to allow easy movement of the backdrop behind the props and furniture arranged for the sitter.
Few backdrop painters are identified, but two who were well known as supplier manufacturers for backdrops, furniture and props and who distributed catalogues are:
  1. Engelmann & Schneider, Dresden, Germany
    Backdrops, furniture, and other props were commercially produced, with specialist firms such as Engelmann & Schneider in Dresden issuing detailed catalogues of their wares.
  2. L.W. Seavey, New York, USA
    From The Background to the Foreground: The Photo Backdrop and Cultural Expression - photo exhibit Afterimage, March-April, 1997 by James B. Wyman Studio photographers active in the U.S. during the 1870s, such as Napolean Sarony, J. M. Mora and L. W. Seavey, all made extensive use of painted backdrops, theatrical sets and scenery.
    As Robert Taft writes in Photography and the American Scene (New York: Dover, 1964, p. 352-353):
    “To Seavey, in large measure, must go the credit, or the blame, for the introduction of the painted background. He rose to fame during the seventies, making a specialty of manufacturing accessories for the photographic gallery. We learn, from an account published in 1879, that "to L. W. Seavey undoubtedly belongs the honor of successfully introducing and making scenic background[s] an indispensable accompaniment to any well-equipped gallery. His grounds combine the color and touch that make him prominently without rival. To him also belongs the honor of making it possible to introduce into the photograph accessories of every description necessary to complete a composition of almost any character, by actually manufacturing the reality of a light and durable material, which admits of easy and safe transportation and long use without injury. His name is familiar to all; his reputation is not alone national, but world-wide. As indeed it was: Dr. Vogel, for instance, writing from Berlin , called Seavey "the first background painter of the world."
    The firm of L.W. Seavey won various medals and awards and at the United States Centennial Commission International Exhibition of 1876, Award in Plastic and Graphic Arts: Group XXVII – Photography, award number 19 was given for photographic backgrounds, papier mache, furniture, and accessories. Commended for well-drawn backgrounds, artistic furniture, and good photographs of his backgrounds and accessories.
    Seavey backgrounds were distributed widely and used in France, Great Britain, Germany, Australia and numerous other countries as well as the USA.

How Nineteenth Century Studios used backgrounds
This information has been gleaned from The Photographic Studios of Europe by H. Baden Pritchard, F.C.S., (Piper & Carter, London, 1882) and is included here to give a sampling of attitudes and usage.
  • Elliott & Fry, London – more than twenty-six backdrops were used in one studio. Highly selective in purchasing backdrops, as they rejected more than two for each one kept. All painted in tempera. Pages 43, 44
  • Hill & Saunders, Porchester Terrace, London - Mr. Cowan (manager?) had no faith in Seavey’s backgrounds; his own are for the most part painted for five shillings a piece, by an old hand (unidentified) who has been a scene painter in his day. Warm brown or grayish tint is preferred color for the backgrounds. Some are suspended with rollers top and bottom, others move in groove as if they were wings at a theatre, and some are hinged like a practical door.
  • Alexander Bassano, London – One backdrop measuring eighty feet is mounted on perpendicular rollers like a panorama to fit in a studio twenty-six feet in length. The scene changed in smooth transition from warm to cool, and from outdoor to indoor.
  • H.P. Robinson, Turnbridge Wells – H.P. Robinson who had training as a painter (accepted at age 21 to a Royal Academy Exhibition) creates his own backdrops using the “Faulkner Process.” Faulkner’s method was to use chalk on damp cotton canvas, and when dry the chalk was brushed to soften the image. Robinson bragged, “that a sea and rock backdrop was created in an hour.” Whether Robinson has high skills as draftsman or used opaque projector as aid to create images on the canvas is unknown.
  • Sarony Studio, Scarborough – employed backdrops purchased from Seavey’s of New York, which were pulled upward from the floor of his studio using ropes and pulleys.
  • Russell & Sons, Worthington – utilized a snow scene backdrop which spilled forward on the floor to accommodate props and furniture. Footprints of the sitters could be detected.
  • L. Joliot, Hotel de Lille et l’Albion, Paris – Messr Joliot employs Seavey’s backdrops, “no doubt our Paris artists could paint them as well, if they gave themselves the trouble, but they won’t, and hence we have to go to America.” Provided with hooks the unstretched backdrops are suspended by wire so that they could be slid into position or out of it.
  • J. C. Schaarwachter, Berlin – used mostly Seavey’s backdrops. He employed baseboards and artificial grass to cover the gap between the suspended backdrop and floor. There is a diagram on page 230, showing how the backdrop was suspended and moved into place.
  • Ludwig Angerer, Vienna – built an elaborate garden house, “chalet,” outside his studio and painted every part gray solely for the purpose of making group portraits outdoors.

Further reading
Avon Neal, "Folk art fantasies: photographer's backdrops", Afterimage, March-April, 1997
Ann Parker and Avon Neal, Los Ambulantes: The Itinerant Photographers of Guatemala, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982)
Renny Pritikin and George C. Berticevich, , Photo Backdrops: The George C. Berticevich Collection (San Francisco, California: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 1998) This catalogue covers an exhibition of the same name held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (June 13 - August 16, 1998).
James B. Wyman, "From The Background to the Foreground: The Photo Backdrop and Cultural Expression - photo exhibit" Afterimage, March-April, 1997
This exhibition created by the Visual Studies Workshop (Rochester, New York) toured from 1997 onwards to a variety of venues including, Visual Studies Workshop Rochester, New York (October 1, 1996-March 8, 1997), Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy Andover, Massachusetts (April 18-July 31, 1997), California Museum of Photography Riverside, California, and the Kennedy Museum of Art, Ohio University.
For 19th century discussions on backgrounds:
"Lesson K: Accessories and Light", p.170-182 in Edward Wilson "Wilson's Photographics: A Series of Lessons" (Philadelphia: Edward L. Wilson, 1881)
"Wilson's Quarter Century in Photography. A Collection of Hints on Practical Photography which form A Complete Text-Book of the Art" by Edward L. Wilson (New York: Edward L. Wilson, 1887)
"Handbook of the Practice and Art of Photography" by Dr. Hermann Vogel, translated by Edward Moelling (Philadelphia: Benerman & Wilson, 1871)
There were a number of patents for supporting frames for photographic backgrounds.
  • US Patent No: 875,006. Lafayette W. Seavey: Supporting frame for photographic background.
    Described in "The Photographic News", Vol.XXXII, No.1581, January 13, 1888, p.28
  • US Patent No: 362,390: Morgan's Improved Multiplex Photographic Background Frame
    G.W. Morgan held patents in Great Britain, France and America), Patent No: 362,390, Patented May 3, 1887 is described in "Background Arrangements" by G.W. Morgan in "The Photographic News", February 10, 1888, p.92



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