Sunday 26 September 2010

A Correct Likeness

More from the Leisure Hour - this time a brief article on the popularity of portrait photography in 1859:


"ONLY a shilling, sir! — c'rect likeness, frame included! done in one minute !"
    We defy any pedestrian to walk leisurely between the breakfast hour and sunset, along any frequented thoroughfare in London, without having the above brief sentence drummed upon the tympanum of his ear in a charming variety of tone and accent. Now it is vociferously announced with the gusto of an inventor who has just discovered an extraordinary secret, and is driven forth by some irresistible impulse to shout his Eureka in the streets ; anon it is breathed into your ear in a kind of confidential whisper, by a man with unctuous epidermis and a hooked nose, who holds in one hand a specimen, and with the other retains you by the button with the familiarity of an old acquaintance, and who, instead of saying "Done in one minute," says, " Dud id vod biddit ;" and again it is bawled, like a costermonger's cry, in as mat- ter-of-fact a way as though it were "taters three poun' tuppens."
    Sometimes the tariff is even lower than a shilling. Your "c'rect likeness, frame included," is offered for sixpence; and in the galleries of art in Cowcross, Whitechapel, and Bethnal Green the figure is even halved again, and you may be done as low as threepence.
    Surely the depths of popular vanity and self-esteem were never so profoundly fathomed as they have been and still are by the photographic plummet. All the world has its correct likeness now, from the "oldest inhabitant" to the babe in long clothes. Of the two and a half millions of faces in London, it is likely that the odd half million would outnumber those who have never sat to the photographer's camera : how many have sat twice, thrice, ten times over is a question not likely to be answered. Our own Betty, who is forty if she is a day, has been "done for sixpence" five times within our conizance, and one can but guess what may be the case  with Betties twenty years younger.
    The entire aspect of the shop-world of London has undergone a material change since Mr. Archer invented the collodion process. The photographers' "cards" (which is the technical name for their show-boards) occupy at this moment, it is our opinion, taking the metropolis throughout, about as much space as the placards of the bill-sticker, with this notable difference, that they are always placed in the sight level, and it is next to impossible to miss one of them. There is a universal "great exhibition" of portraits always open — portraits of the great uncelebrated, done in lead-colour ; and meanwhile the "cards" of the miniature painters, which used to line both sides of the way from Charing Cross to Aldgate, and from the Edgware Road to Fleet Ditch, have disappeared. The time-honoured inscription, "In this style, one guinea," has given place to an inscription tantamount to the shilling temptation quoted above.
    It is on record — at any rate we remember reading the tragedy in the "Times" newspaper — that one of the first miniature-painters who . saw a photographic portrait, went home astounded, and incontinently hanged himself in his studio. The example was not generally followed by his brethren: they bided their time, and ultimately reaped the reward of their patience and fortitude : what threatened at first to prove their ruin and annihilation, has proved instead their safety and indefinite multiplication. They took to photography, learned the collodion process, and, producing heads by the hundred a week, found their  account in it. At first it was only the popular miniature-painters—those whose exhibition gallery were the door-posts, and open entries of Oxford Street and the Strand — who did this ; but gradually men of higher standing and greater pretensions began to do the same ; some of them blended their old art with the new, but others abandoned the old altogether, and set about improving or developing the capabilities of the new. What is the case now? Go into the miniature-room of the Royal Academy, in this year of Grace '59, and see how many miniature painters exhibit, compared with the number who exhibited seven years ago. The fact that stares you in the face is just this : that photography has annihilated miniature-painting, with the exception of the very highest walk of that department of art. People will not pay a high price for anything short of first-rate excellence, while light-pictures are to be had, for a few guineas at the utmost, surpassing in fidelity all the efforts of the painter's art, and wanting only in colour.
    It was the discovery of what are called positives on glass, and which made their appearance but a few years back, which created and fed the demand for popular photographs. There was a prejudice among skilled photographers against these productions, and they cried them down as unworthy of the profession ; but they were faithful in point of likeness, they could be executed in two or three minutes, and consequently they were cheap. Cheapness carried the day; they were produced by millions, and. at this moment there are te thousand makers of faces by this ready and simple mode, for ten that set about the business with pallet and brushes. The masses of the people, that is, the lower, middle, and the working classes, are the chief patrons of this style of art ; and it is where the masses most abound that its professors are most plentiful. Along those thronged lines of route leading from the city towards the suburbs, in any direction, the popular photographers select their stations. It is in these places that the worker swarms in his hours of leisure, during the long summer evenings and on the Sunday afternoons. Sunday, therefore, in London, we are sorry to say, is the cheap photographer's grand day. On that day it is not at all unusual with him to do as much work, and turn as much money, as during the other six days of the week : then it is that he engages an additional touter out of doors, and one or two additional assistants within. The touter penetrates the crowd, and picks up the servant girls, who can rarely resist his blandishments if they have a sixpence to spare. On a fine afternoon the traffic is furious; the rival touters canvass every passer-by, and unfortunate "subjects " are fought for, and dragged this way and that, like so much disputed property. Then sometimes comes the policeman to settle the dispute, or, by walking off with the disputants, to refer it to the arbitrement of the magistrates on the Monday.
    It is for the accommodation of the masses, too, that cheap photographs are taken by night. An American first introduced the night practice, by means of a peculiar light which he warranted as his own invention, but which rivals in trade were not slow to discover for themselves as soon as they witnessed its success. The night subjects are generally of a rough class, not much given to hypercriticism, or tender on the score of a blotch or two in background or drapery — which lenity is but a fair return for the convenience of being done cheap as dirt, up to eleven o'clock at night.
    Who are all these thousands of cheap photographers? and what are their antecedents? The answer to this question, we opine, would embrace a large and various description of men, and women too. Some of them, as already hinted, are ci-devant miniature-painters; a round number of them are tradesmen who have failed in business; by no means a few are Jews ; numbers more are artisans, clerks, and supernumeraries, who, wanting in regular employments, have taken to the face-making trade in default of a better; others, again, are professional men unable to establish themselves in their professions, and others are foreign exiles. Among the women who practise the art, we know some who are widows with families, whom they thus support ; and some who are journeymen's wives, who pursue it to eke out the unsatisfactory wages of their husbands. The truth is, that for the mere production of a positive picture on glass, the process is so easy that a child may master it, and the capital to be invested is so small, as to be within the reach of almost all ranks. Within a few minutes' walk of where we are now writing, there is a cobbler who supplements the labours of his lapstone by photographic experiments at sixpence a head; and a rag, bone, and grease collector, who not only does ditto, but, being an experimental philosopher, makes his own collodion.
     Besides the multitude of practitioners in London, and all the large towns and cities of the empire, there are a considerable army of them who travel the country in all directions. There is not a market-town, village, or hamlet, even in the remotest recesses of Wales, that has not been visited by the face-making photographer, and paid tribute to his art. Those who first explored the country districts reaped a capital harvest. The process was so wonderful, and the effect was so extraordinary, that they could command their ownp rice; some of them literally coined money, and where they expected but a few days' employment, got stuck fast for months in the high tide of fortune — a state of things, however, which did not last very long.
    Another form of popular photography is that of the stereoscopic slides. These are now so cheap, that the stereoscope and a dozen slides maybe bought for a few shillings. The demand for these is  so immense as to support large establishments, and employ, it is said, nearly million of capital. They are exhibited by hundreds of thousands in the shop windows, and embrace an endless variety of every imaginable subject. Portraits are comparatively few among them ; but we have the Reverend Mr. Spurgeon and wife in their domestic retirement, another reverend gentleman and wife in the same blissful circumstances, and a few other celebrities. We have groups and conversation pictures—ghost scenes, for which the stereoscope is remarkably adapted —public buildings, exteriors and interiors, cities, towns, street scenes, coast scenes, dead game, fruit pieces, and landscapes innumerable. All that is rare and picturesque in England, Wales, and Scotland is brought home to the stereoscopist ; we have everything noteworthy and historical in Syria, Palestine, Turkey, and Egypt; and, if report is to be relied on, we shall have, before the present year is out, veritable transcripts of scenery from India and China. The labour and the capital expended in the production of slides is something startling. We could refer to a travelling trio of friends who set out last year on a summer trip with the camera, who came home in the autumn loaded with negatives, and sold them at once for £2000. The stereoscopic publisher can afford a good price for copyright, for he has the advantage over all other publishers — his plates cannot be pirated successfully ; they never wear out, but will print on to the crack of doom, and he need not print a single impression more than he has demand for. This stereoscope slide piinting, by the way, is a business by itself, intrusted to men who understand enough of photography, and it need not be much, to do it successfully and for the present is tolerably lucrative. Then a prodigious number of the slides are coloured, which being done by hand, adds from thirty to sixty per cent. to their value. The colouring is done in good part by females; young ladies do not object to the employment, and we know several thus engaged, who find it an agreeable mode of earning money.
    But if we are to look at the industrial side of the photographic art, we should know neither where to begin nor where to stop. The consumption of picture frames in London alone must be thousands daily; morocco cases, with gilded metal mats within, are hardly less numerous, which last article, we may notice in passing, has fallen by competition ninety per cent. in cost since the rise of photography. Then there are the paper flats for larger photographs — a new species of production, but in demand literally by the ton. Then what shall be said of the lenses, which the opticians cannot make fast enough, and which cost from two to a hundred guineas each; of the cameras, ever undergoing some new improvement; of the standing machinery; and, lastly, not least but greatest item of all, of the chemicals? Who shall say how much gold and silver is literally spirited away in photographic operations? One item we will set down, because we have it on undeniable authority. A single firm has consumed, within the last twelve nonths, no less than a ton's weight, at the cost of £7000 for the raw metal, of silver, for the manufacture of nitrate of silver for photographic purposes. The whole stock was demanded and consumed as fast as it was manufactured. What must be the number of the pictures produced, supposing each to have required a single grain of the metal (and that would be a large average), to necessitate the consumption of a ton's weight of silver? And seven the answer to this question would only give the pictorial results from the chemicals of a single manufacturing house.
    Photography, they say, is as yet but in its infancy: truly, it is a strapping babe, with a tolerable appetite for many things, the precious metals among the rest. What it is doomed to be, when it comes to years of discretion, remains to be seen.


  1. I like this writer for his style, which though fancy is never overly prolix but has a pleasant and enjoyable variety of expression, and for the fact that he obviously does his homework before setting pen to paper and backs up his statements with facts and figures. (I say "he" because the style suggests the writer is masculine.)

    He must have spent an immense amount of time coursing the streets of London, observing, noting and seeking information. Not all journalists of today perform their roles so assiduously; in fact, very few do so.

    If I may emit a small criticism that has been on my mind for some time, it is that these texts are oftimes spoilt by misprints and omissions. Sometimes one can see the error and mentally correct it but on other occasions they leave the sense of the passage obscure. Sometimes it leads to confusion when one doesn't know whether what is written is correct in the Victorian vernacular or is yet another slip of your otherwise admirable typing fingers. For example, I read above "They took to photography, learned the collodion process, and, producing heads by the hundred a week, found their account it."

    I apologize for intruding a negative note but it is because I think that an improvement in this domain would enhance enjoyment of the site.

  2. The missing word here is "in", which I have corrected (although it is still rather an odd, quaint phrase). Unfortunately, the OCR process creates errors; and missing prepositions often suffer, not being visible as errors when I proof the text through the editing software. If you find anything indecipherable, let me know. I can't promise any improvement, however. Greater precision would require more time to proofing than the demands of real life permit.