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Grant Romer, on:
portraits in the mid-19th century

Grant Romer Q: Give us a sense of what it would be like to have your portrait taken by a photographer in the mid-19th century.

In the mid-19th century, you went to the portrait photographer usually on some important occasion, to have a memorial portrait made. The idea is that your picture was going to last for a long time and be seen by generations perhaps of your family and society. So you went in your best mode. You dressed as well as you could. You combed yourself as well as you could. You had a haircut usually before. And you see that in the portraits, that people have their Sunday best on, for the most part. It was also expensive to have your portrait made. It wasn't an idle act to go to the portrait photographer, for most people. Therefore they were presenting themselves to the future and wanted to have their best face on, as much as possible.

But putting your best face on in photography was a collaborative effort. It wasn't just how you presented yourself, but how the photographer made you comfortable in the studio, arranged you in a proper pose, and it was a collaborative effort on the part of both the sitter and the photographer. Some sitters had a very clear idea of how they wanted to be presented. Other ones didn't. Some photographers were very adept and artful in their putting the sitter at ease. Others had no idea about the art of that, and just plunked people down as well. So you see a full range of portraiture produced in the 19th century, some really high quality portraiture that is comparable to the best that could be made today, as well as very primitive examples of awkward, uncomfortable, ill at ease people having their picture made in a very crude fashion.

Q: Describe what the person posing for a photograph might have felt, and why they often didn't smile in these photos.

Well, going to the portrait photographer was a formal act. You had to decide that you were going to have your picture made, for whatever reason. It was going to cost you something. And if you had seen other examples of other people's portraits, you might be concerned that it wouldn't come out in a complimentary fashion. So with some trepidation, you probably shopped around, picked your photographer, and went in. And you had decisions to make: what size portrait you would have; how many copies; how much it would cost you. So there was a negotiation that went on before you eventually went into the studio and sat down. The circumstances of the studio were unfamiliar: the space, the lighting, the apparatus, the camera itself, where you sat down. You'd have to be directed by the photographer as to where to sit, how to pose, what direction to put your gaze, whether you looked into the camera or away from the camera. He'd have to pose you in a way that made you look comfortable as well as made sense in the camera, in terms of composition.

Then, once that was all set, you were told to hold still and how long the exposure would take, which may be anywhere from 3 to 6 or 8 seconds, on the average throughout the 19th century. After that all went on, then the camera had to be loaded and the moment of the shutter or the cap being removed, prepared. "All right now. I'm ready. Hold still. Assume a pleasant expression. Here we go." One second, two seconds, three seconds, four seconds. Usually during that time your mind is going "mmmmmm". Just like people dying see their life flash before them at the end, they say during the exposure people had the same experience of suddenly their minds opening and things going through it which your expressions can change. Ans keeping from moving during the act of thinking different thoughts was a challenge to the sitter. Also this issue of: Can I blink or not? Blinking during the exposure doesn't show up because of the long exposure, but people were afraid to blink, and it causes different types of expression than of the natural and normal ones. So in the most primitive work, you can definitely see that the sitter is going through a real experience. And you don't know where it begins really and where it ends. So there's uncertainties in the act of sitting down for your portrait.

And many people, after they had their portrait made, rejected the portrait. "That doesn't look like me. That's not a likeness." This whole issue of likeness. You can make a portrait of someone, but whether it actually looks like that person, as they think they look, or as their friends or their mother or their father or their lover think they look, well, that-that was an issue for people as well. So there were many questions in people's minds when they were sitting down. Many uncertainties. And this was even more the case in-in children sitting down, who had no context of experience to understand what the act of having your photographic portrait made.

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