The Sitter

An image of a daguerreotype from the mid-nineteenth century showing three women.

‘Photographic portraiture is the best feature of the fine arts for the million that the ingenuity of man has yet devised. It has in this sense swept away many of the illiberal distinctions of rank and wealth, so that the poor man who possesses but a few shillings can command as perfect a lifelike portrait of his wife and child as Sir Thomas Lawrence painted for the most distinguished sovereigns of Europe.'”

The Photographic News (London) 1861

A little while ago I posted a blog about the growth of the selfie from the first time we saw our reflections through to the present day when we take billions of photographs of ourselves every year. It has become a second nature to pose in front of a camera whether it is for a self-portrait or someone else is pressing the shutter. We have become so narcissistic it can be very hard to imagine what it must have been like to have been photographed for the first time. In this blog I want to focus on that experience.

Can you remember when you first looked at a photograph of yourself and realised it was you?

The chances are very remote that you do. We have all grown up in an era when photographing ourselves is a common occurrence. Many of our life experiences from the significant to the mundane have been captured on camera so to try to isolate the moment when you first saw a photograph of yourself would be very difficult.

In the early days of photography seeing that photo would be a significant moment especially as it may be the only one you will ever have of yourself. It would not have been a simple “Say Cheese” as you or someone else held their phone up for a moment to capture everyone. The process would have been complicated. It would have required a trip to a photographer’s studio so it would have been something of a day out.

Initially the cost would be quite expensive, perhaps the equivalent of several months wages; another reason for it being a one-off experience. In  time and with improved processes and technology this cost would come tumbling down.

Once at the studio you would have been ushered onto what looked like a theatrical stage with daylight pouring down from above to light you. The set would have included a variety of backdrops, furniture and props, possibly of a grander style than you were used to at home, adding to the sense of the occasion. Apart from the light overhead there might be some mirrors beneath you to throw some of it back into your eyes. As you settle yourself down you try not to squint.

Family portrait 1855. Not everybody manages to stay still!
Bergen Public Library Norway from Bergen, Norway, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

You and your family would be posed. The photographer would disappear under the dark cloth of his camera to check the image and then come back to move you a little. You might be sat in a chair with your family around you. As you lean back you feel a metal clamp behind your head to hold it steady for the duration of the exposure. The photographer asks someone else in your group to hold their chin in their hand as if in thought.  You will all need to stay still for a bit.

You would probably arrange your features into a fairly neutral expression. You won’t smile because it is hard to keep it up for the duration of the exposure and you really don’t want to ruin the picture as you will only get one chance. Also, perhaps you are slightly overawed and feel you need to put on a face appropriate to the grandeur of the circumstances. You might be thinking of some of the portraits of famous people you have seen and you would remember that in most of them did not smile. So you would compose yourself accordingly.

When everything was ready you would need to remain still whilst a photographic plate was put into the camera and then the lens cap to expose it for a little while.

If your photograph is being taken in the very early days of the invention then you may need to stay still for several minutes, maybe up to twenty minutes even in the brightest sunlight. In those cases you might close your eyes (trying not to fall asleep) knowing that the photographer would open them again by retouching them. As the photographic process became more sensitive and lenses were able to capture more light the time would come to a few seconds.

Once the ordeal was over you would be ushered out with no doubt the next subjects already queuing up to take your place for their moment in the spotlight.

A few days later you would return to pick up the photograph. Today images have become transient; we look at them for a moment and then move on. There are apps devoted to the short-term sharing of photographs, deleted after a brief moment. Back in the nineteenth century your photograph would have been more than just an image. It would be an object. For the early Daguerreotype process it would have been a one-off, a shiny artefact set in an ornate frame. Once home the photograph would take pride of place on a shelf for all to see (although because of its reflective surface it could only be viewed one at a time from directly in front).

And at the end you have an heirloom, an object held by the family, fading and scratched but still recognisably you after all these years. We look back at you and briefly experience that same sense of wonder that you must have felt on the day that you first held this photograph in hands.

Published by Stephen Taylor

Freelance e-learning developer and instructional designer, photographer and cyclist

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