Thursday, August 11, 2011

A brief history of portrait photography

Because of my wife's photo restoration business, I am often "exposed" to very old photographs. As I looked at some old portraits recently, I noticed that everyone seemed so formal. I thought, "Did everyone just dress better back in the day?" Perhaps, but a lot of the attire worn was related to what having a portrait photograph meant.

Edward S. Curtis, 1899
According to Robert Leggat, portraits generally were reserved for the wealthy. Before portrait photography, there was portrait painting, which was even more expensive.

Getting a portrait photograph done was a big deal. A person had to dress in appropriate colors, since the process was only sensitive to blue or white. The subject had to sit still for a long time, and devices such as a metal clamp were used to keep people in place.

In the eighteenth century, portrait photography became more accessible thanks to three developments:  the invention of the daguerreotype, the use of miniature portraits and the popularity of profile pictures. The daguerreotype was relatively inexpensive. Miniature portraits also were less expensive. Profile pictures, named after Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), involved traces from the shadow cast by a lamp. Studios soon sprang up around the world and portraiture boomed.

Today, of course, digital cameras have essentially made film obsolete. Perhaps we could still dress up formally for portraits, though.
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