II: Making, Not Taking: Portrait Photography in the 19th Century

Part Two: A Visit to the Portrait Studio

By The Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Installation View of Making, Not Taking: Portrait Photography in the 19th Century (2020-02)The Davis Museum at Wellesley College

A visit to the portrait studio

The early photography studio was much more than a place to have one’s portrait made—it was an entire occasion. Making, Not Taking: Portrait Photography in the 19th Century, an exhibition on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College from February 7 until December 13, 2020, explored the materiality, the craft, and the event of photography in its earliest iterations. Part 2 of 3, this virtual version of the exhibition focuses on the many decisions made by camera operators and their sitters to create a successful portrait.

Portrait of a Woman (19th century) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Studio proprietors and entrepreneurs deployed a range of strategies to elevate the photograph to the status of fine art.



Coaxing out dignified expressions, arranging backdrops and accessories, managing the distribution of light, and correctly timing an exposure were all skills that made early photography equal parts art and science.

Studio Imprint for the Palace Railroad Photograph Car Company (19th century) by Palace Railroad Photograph Car CompanyThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Visiting the studio

In the early days of the daguerreotype, two main types of practitioners emerged: those who established permanent studios and galleries in city centers, and itinerant photographers who brought the technology to small towns and rural areas. The latter were often portrait painters or miniaturists who adapted their craft to the photographic apparatus, charging as little as 25 cents for a likeness.

Studio Imprint (19th century) by White & HylerThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

By contrast, daguerreotypists who opened permanent establishments billed themselves as professional artists. Studios advertised their services in clever designs printed on the backs of cartes de visite and cabinet cards.

Studio Imprint (19th century) by H. EshbackThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Alongside the name and location of the studio, many imprints incorporate iconography, such as cherubs, columns, or a painter’s palette, to suggest photography’s status as a fine art.

Studio Imprint of T. Lilienthal Photographic Establisment, New Orleans (19th century) by T. Lilienthal Photographic EstablishmentThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Other examples present the facade of the studio building, emphasizing details that would enhance a visitor’s experience...

...such as large skylights and storefront displays.

Grand Panoramic View of the West Side of Washington Street, Boston, Mass. (1853) by William J. PierceThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

In this 1853 print from the popular magazine Gleason's Pictorial, numerous photography studios can be identified among the commercial enterprises clustered along Washington Street in Boston.

The studio of Samuel Curtis occupies all three floors of a building. The portraits would have been made on the upper floors to gain greater access to sunlight. Skylights lined the rooftops of urban centers in the 19th century, earning photography studios the popular moniker, “glasshouses.”

Interior View of Meade Brothers' Daguerreotype Gallery, Broadway, New York (1853) by Nathaniel OrrOriginal Source: Boston Athenæum

This engraving depicts the reception room at a prosperous studio in New York. Elegantly curved urns and rich drapery frame the scene, where visitors view portrait paintings, daguerreotypes, and other curiosities amongst a lavishly decorated interior.

Photography salons were the new “art palaces” of and for the middle class. Professional journals emphasized the importance of curating galleries and reception rooms where the “taste and beauty” of the furnishings would prepare potential customers to create their own work of art.

In the foreground, patrons view their final product, a new form of self-representation that confirmed their status as modern, bourgeois individuals.

Mrs. Drake, Mrs. Abbott, Joseph W. Hyde and Charles Greenwood (19th century) by Charles A. AdamsThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Sitting for a portrait

Sitting for one’s portrait could be unpleasant. Patrons endured direct, blinding sunlight, long exposure times, and uncomfortable devices to hold the head and neck in place. Many first-time visitors left disappointed with the results. Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously called his daguerreotype “the portrait of a mask instead of a man.”

Installation View of Making, Not Taking: Portrait Photography in the 19th Century (2020-02)The Davis Museum at Wellesley College

The innermost sanctum of the portrait studio was known as the “operating room.” Just as a medical professional’s operating room held tools and devices essential for treating the body, so too did that of the portrait photographer.

Fernando Wood Group (1854) by Samuel RootThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

The task to create more than a likeness, but an expression of the sitter’s inner character and social standing, often required multiple exposures to get the tilt of a head, the placement of hands, or the position of the body just right.

Fernando Wood Group (1854) by Samuel RootThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Group portraits were a particular challenge, requiring a careful balancing of physiques, ages, and genders, as well as a camera with a good length of focus to capture each individual in equal detail.

How to Read Character: A New Illustrated Hand-Book of Phrenology and Physiognomy (1869) by Samuel R. WellsOriginal Source: Special Collections, Clapp Library, Wellesley College

The belief that inner character could be discerned from physical features was supported by the wildly popular pseudo-science of phrenology.

How to Read Character: A New Illustrated Hand-Book of Phrenology and Physiognomy (1869) by Samuel R. WellsOriginal Source: Special Collections, Clapp Library, Wellesley College

Treatises fed the Victorian obsession with “reading” character by demonstrating how to judge a stranger’s inner qualities from their appearance.

A prominent forehead, for example, was understood to indicate a high level of intelligence.

Portrait of a Man (ca. 1850s) by Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson HawesThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

One strand of thought believed that weaker faculties could be improved through cultivation, and portrait photographers were encouraged to use lighting and positioning to highlight (or subdue) a sitter’s supposed anatomical strengths and weaknesses.

Based on theories of eugenics that justified the violently racist institutions of slavery and settler colonialism in the United States, posing formulas routinely focused on the white male forehead, cheekbones, jaw line, and nose.

Portrait of a Woman and Two Girls (19th century) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

In addition to posing, props were used to various practical and symbolic effects in the visual construction of one's identity. Seated figures often held objects to occupy their fidgety hands for the length of the exposure.

A handkerchief as a sign of genteel sensibility, a book to suggest learning, the portrait of a lost loved one, or the tools of one’s occupation were popular choices.

Portrait of a Woman with Reflector Screen (19th century) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

It was important to fill the picture with objects that would balance the space. Chairs and tables were both practical and decorative. A chair might steady an individual while standing for her portrait…

Portrait of an Infant (19th Century) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

…or it could hide a crouching mother while holding her child in place.

Portrait of a Man (19th century) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Studios were advised to have multiple backdrops on hand so that the camera operator might choose a setting appropriate to the sitter's “character” (i.e. social class).

Portrait of a Man (19th century) by Abraham P. BeecherThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Accessories, backdrops, clothing, and stature all contributed to the self-conscious construction of identity in portrait photography.

Black Americans used the truth value associated with photography to convey intelligence, citizenship, and financial success, despite the harsh discrimination they faced.

Portrait of a Family (1860s) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

After visiting the “operating room,” patrons could pay an additional fee to have color hand-painted onto the surface of their portraits.

Embellishments often included a subtle pink added to the cheeks, red or blue to enliven an outfit…

Portrait of Two Women (19th century) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

...or gold over top jewelry.

As Marcus Aurelius Root famously argued in his treatise on photography as art: “The Camera and the Pencil are companions.”

Union Case Cover (19th century) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Finally, the sitter selected a container for their new keepsake. Hinged, clasped, and lined with velvet or silk, cases were available in a variety of materials, from inlaid leather to thermoplastic (known as “union cases” for the combination of shellac and wood fibers).

Empty gutta percha case (19th century) by UnknownThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Inside, the plate was held in place by a mat, a layer of glass, and a preserver that likewise came in a variety of styles.

Vendedora de Flores [Young woman carrying child on back selling flowers in a basket] (ca. 1870-75) by Antíoco Cruces and Luis CampaThe Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Before the daguerreotype, portraits were the purview of an elite, ruling minority. In the United States and Europe, an emergent middle class deployed the newly affordable genre to shape and proclaim their identity. They also increasingly used it to reify and constrain the status of criminals, the enslaved, and the colonized. To learn more about the role of the portrait studio in creating and sustaining false constructions of race and class, continue on to Part 3 of this virtual exhibition: Studios Around the Globe.

Credits: Story

Curated by Carrie Cushman, Linda Wyatt Gruber '66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography, this exhibition was made possible through the support of the Surf Point Foundation and with generous loans from Barbara and Peter Schultz. The exhibition is supported with funds given through the generosity of Linda Wyatt Gruber (Class of 1966) and Wellesley College Friends of Art at the Davis.

To learn more about the relationship between early photography and phrenology, download the Davis app and explore the tour, “Photography & Phrenology in the 19th Century.”

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps