Nineteenth Century Photographic Portraiture

My Great Grandfather 1862

Fig. 01 My Great Grandfather 1862

Graham Clarke highlights the challenge ahead; “the portrait in photography is one of the most problematic areas of photographic practice. At virtually every level and within every context the portrait photograph is fraught with ambiguity.” (1) Even before we can consider the particular ambiguities that Clarke had in mind we might feel the need to neatly define the photographic portrait, perhaps to ring fence its meaning and thereby make it easier to identify, analyse and understand but even that seemingly simple exercise becomes increasingly complex the more one looks at the historical and contemporary context of the genre.

The Tate Dictionary of Art (2) defines a portrait as the “representation of a particular person”; so far so good, but other definitions add the word “artistic” (i) thereby introducing, if not subjectivity, room for argument. Reference to The National Portrait Gallery, whom you would think would know, offers more rather than less complexity as that institution was established to commemorate people who had played great roles in British History as “warriors or statesmen” with the original collection excluding portraits of living persons (ii). It was not until 1969 that the rules were changed to include living sitters. (4) The origin of our national repository of the portrait has therefore historically placed the status of the sitter above the skills or status of the artist, in essence its role was to document a narrow perspective of British history, not to promote or display works of artistic value. Today’s galleries offer far greater primacy to the artist but there remains the conundrum that many portrait artists make their mark by representing famous people; would David Bailey have been offered such a huge exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery as Stardust (5) if he had only photographed the man-on-the-street? It appears that a significant proportion of gallery portraiture still juggles the primacy of the artist with the status of the sitter to the degree that portraits of celebrities are more typically seen as “portraits” and those of ordinary people “documentary”.

The evolution of the photographic portrait in the 19th century is not a linear progression, it has many branches. The starting point is comparatively clear, a factual and direct representation of outward appearance but the genre quickly diverges into mimicking painted portraiture, documentary, narrative, tableaux, representation of the inner man and typology. In the interests of keeping this essay within the bounds of reasonable scale I will briefly consider three forms of portraiture that originated in the 19th century and that have continued to evolve as important streams of the genre until the present day. The first of these is the formal portrait which most closely continues the tradition of the painted portrait; the second being the artistic portrait where the photographer begins to explore the inner self of their subject and thirdly the documentary portrait where the photographer recognises that the camera offers an unique opportunity to fix the present.

The Formal Portrait

John Tagg, as quoted by Clarke, defines the portrait as “a sign whose purpose is both the description of the individual and the inscription of social identity” (1) which holds true in relation to the historical painted portrait which unlike the photograph is a study rather than a snapshot. The painter could create what Clarke calls a “composite, even definitive image” of the sitter incorporating a carefully selected setting, costume and props that represented the wealth, status and thereby, in those narrow terms, the identity of the individual. However, rather than necessarily giving us an accurate representation of the subject, these studies described the sitter’s self perceived image and real or aspirational status.

Alfred Tomlins (my Grandfather) in Hunting Gear by an Unknown Photographer pre-1914. Alfred was a trooper in the Household Cavalry but never owned a horse.

Fig. 02 Alfred Tomlins (my Grandfather) in Hunting Gear by an Unknown Photographer pre-1914. Alfred was a trooper in the Household Cavalry but never owned a horse.

These characteristics of the painted portrait hold true for much of the genre’s history and, as is the way of things, history repeats itself when the studio photo portrait reaches it zenith in Victorian and Edwardian times. By the beginning of the 20th century the photographic portrait became affordable to the ordinary working person and many family albums will include humble ancestors posing in aspirational costumes and settings. (see fig. 02)

The photographic portrait inherited many of the characteristics and conventions of painting but whilst it would take many years and the invention of the Kodak Brownie for the medium to become truly democratic, a daguerreotype was significantly less costly than an oil painting so a portrait was no longer the sole province of the privileged and became increasingly accessible to the middle class. However, a visit to the photographic studios that sprang up in the mid-nineteenth century and survived in numbers on the high street until recent times still referenced a visit to the painter’s studio with the output retaining the formality and, often the modified identity, of the painted portrait. Roswell Angier believes that, in the early days of photography,  “being photographed was a ceremony that lent a special quality to the resulting image” (7) but this “special quality” does not necessarily extend to a qualitative measure of the image. Gerry Badger (6) points out that the studios that sprang up in the mid-19th century were often staffed by chancers who had little on no skill beyond the technical operation of their equipment.

Portraiture reflects the conventions of its time. When browsing Victorian portraits in various collections patterns emerge. Men are typically represented as assertive, stern, substantial figures staring into space, deep in thought as they ponder great matters of state, commerce, science or art; apart from a desk or table to lean on (iii) there are few props, even early photographs of military men often exclude swords or firearms. If not engaged in deep thought  men look at the camera as if to state their equality or superiority to the photographer and viewer. Women on the other hand demurely avert their gaze, to conform to the “19th century cultural value of female modesty” (7); props are far more common and usually denote either the domestic role of the sitter such as sewing, embroidery, and flower arranging or, their gentle and artistic nature using musical instruments and opened books.

Fig. 03 Antoine Claudet, Family Group circa. 1852. One half of a stereoscopic daguerreotype.

Fig. 03 Antoine Claudet, Family Group circa. 1852. One half of a stereoscopic daguerreotype.

Figure 03, a daguerreotype by Antoine Claudet, shows these formulaic representations in a single picture. The male sits serious and thoughtful while the females engage in music, embroidery, flower arranging and reading. The picture is full of connotations that describe a male dominated society; the man is a strong, serious and thoughtful figure in a dark suit and a no nonsense haircut whilst the women are softer creatures with pretty hair and fussy dresses and who have time to explore trivial pursuits.

As a consequence the interpretation of formal studio photographic portraits from any era is fraught with ambiguities; are the props part of a studio’s store or do they represent some real aspect of the sitter’s character? Does the pose represent anything of the sitter’s nature or is he or she simply conforming to an expected norm? These ambiguities had not been present in the oil painting, the cost of entry was too high for such frivolous use of props, each item was carefully chosen and positioned to make a point but by the time of this daguerreotype a studio likeness could be purchased in New York for less than a dollar (6). The sitter could choose from a selection of props that either represented or distorted their identity so the medium that had entered the scene as a bringer of truth quickly begins to show its innate ability to manipulate and mislead.

The Artistic Portrait

The early portraitists were intent on emphasising their subjects outward appearance, their position in society; direct, sharp images that profess to be statements of fact but by the 1860s this approach began to evolve. Julia Margaret Cameron wrote in her journal that she wanted to capture ” the greatness of the inner, not outer man (iv)” (7). According to Angier, Cameron was more interested in metaphor than in description and was one of the first photographers to “assert herself as an artist” (v). However, her approach was not so revolutionary as to step outside all the conventions of her time. She had some elements removed from her camera lens to create a soft focus but her men continue to be posed as strong, powerful individuals and her women as passive and demure. Clarke argues that her female figures “relate to an idea of beauty and passivity: a spiritual ideal not a physical presence” (1). Combining the two ideas leads to the assumption that what Cameron saw “inside” her subjects was, in fact, a confirmation of the ideals of Victorian society.

The Return "After Three Days" Julia Margaret Cameron 1865 Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

Fig. 04 The Return “After Three Days” Julia Margaret Cameron 1865 Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

Cameron might have been the first photographer to look beyond the outward appearance of her subjects to find their true identity in parallel with  ennobling “photography and to secure for it the character and uses of high art” but in doing so she also introduces new ambiguities by creating staged photographs, allegorical narratives and tableaux vivants that represented noble emotions and classical characters. We know that she used everyone from friends and family to delivery boys to pose in her tableaux (see previous research) so there is no clear line between her fictional characters and her factual portraits.

Cameron was not the only photographer intent on finding the inner being of the subject. Gaspard Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar, developed a portrait style that excluded any context and focussed solely on his subjects, which in Nadar’s case, were the rich and famous of Parisian society. He was originally a caricaturist and started collecting photographs as the basis for his cartoons but his photographic studio quickly took on a life of its own and became a popular meeting place for the Parisian artistic set. Nadar fits somewhere between the formal portraitist and the artist; his studies of contemporary painters have the formality of the painted studio portrait but his, self declared, intent was to explore the genius and unique characteristics of his sitters. He said that “The portrait I do best is of the person I know best” (11). Unlike Cameron he has no interest in soft focus to bring a sense of fine art and as a consequence there is a stark truthfulness and directness in his work. Working with natural light he put on record a remarkable series of photographs of the great artists of his time.

Nadar saw photography as a simple process, he said that photographic theory could be taught in an hour, but he believed that its art lay in an understanding of light “It is how light lies on the face that you as an artist must capture”; he sought to avoid what he called the “banal portrait”  and wanted to create an “intimate likeness”, to do this he said that “you must put yourself in communion with the sitter, size up his thoughts and his very character.” (12) (vi)

The Documentary Portrait

There are many surprisingly early examples of documentary portraiture. As early as the 1840’s a painter, David Octavius Hill, and his engineer partner, Robert Adamson, moved out of the studio and began to photograph subjects in the context of their day-to-day lives. Their collaboration started with a project to photograph the four hundred and seventy attendees at the first meeting of the Free Church of Scotland but developed into taking more than three thousand photographs during their four year partnership. Their most notable contribution to the practice of photography were their photographs of ordinary working people especially of fishermen in the village of Newhaven. There is an intriguing suggestion by Ian Jeffrey in Phaidon’s Photo Book (10) that these photographs may have been part of a fund-raising project for the benefit of the fishermen and their families which could mean they are earliest use of photography for charitable means.

Hill and Adamson photographed their subjects not just in context but often captured the complete figure so one hundred and seventy years later we are given a remarkable insight into the identity of these men, women and children working in a small Scottish fishing village.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century travellers began to take camera equipment on their foreign journeys and there are many portrait studies of indigenous people from across the globe. Unfortunately many of these collections lack any context and whilst they might have some interest to an anthropologist they hold little or no social meaning. However there were also a number of photographers who, like Hill, set out to record people in the context of their communities and these collections are not only an important part of the history of photography but are the first time that the ordinary person became the central character in the visual arts.

A Group of Fishermen in Whitby - Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (undated)

Fig .05 A Group of Fishermen in Whitby – Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (undated)

One of these early documentary photographers was Frank Meadow Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe was a Yorkshireman, the son of a painter and printer who had owned what was probably one of the first cameras in Leeds. After the death of his father Sutcliffe became a professional photographer and having failed to start a business in Tonbridge Wells, set up a small studio in Whitby in 1875. Sutcliffe was not an egoistical man and said that his portrait work was nothing special but he will be remembered, perhaps not for his studio work, but for the comprehensive record he created of one small fishing town in the North East of England. The Sutcliffe Gallery (12) has published a series of short books of his work, I found the first three (14), (15) & (16) in a secondhand bookshop some years ago and was immediately struck by the considered compositions, wide tonal range and direct documentary style that, if it were not for the posed street portraits, might be called early reportage.

The majority of photographs in his collection are scenes of Whitby with a particular emphasis on the harbour and its fishing fleet but included within these scenes are a wide range of individual portraits and group shots of the fishermen, women and children and of the local farming community. His landscapes are interesting and artful with a wonderful use of light but it is the portraits that communicate the identity of the town so powerfully. Bill and Michael Shaw who compiled the published collections point out that Whitby was often shrouded in a mixture of sea fret and the smoke from the fishermen’s cottages and Sutcliffe uses this hazy atmosphere as a natural backdrop to many of his portraits. At times we can only sense the nature of the surrounding landscape with just enough detail to provide an atmospheric context.

All these portraits are posed and compositionally organised indicating a high level of cooperation between photographer and subject; it is likely that these were people that Sutcliffe knew well and the fact that his curators are able to name many of the subjects suggests that he maintained careful records. The value of this collection lies not just in the quality of the work but in its completeness, it provides a comprehensive document of the people who worked in the town in the last quarter of the 19th century and like the work of John Thomson in London offers a rare insight into the lives of the ordinary Victorian.


The Crawlers - John Thomson (undated)

Fig. 06 The Crawlers – John Thomson (undated)

As soon as a relatively unskilled person could quickly and cheaply capture the image of another person they began to experiment with how that person was represented. Tagg’s view is that the portrait simultaneously tells us about the person and their social identity and in the photographic portraits of 19th century there is an interesting balance between these two characteristics.

The formal family portrait tells us little about individual identity and much about social identity; the posed formal photographs of “great” men add to our knowledge of those individuals but we are alert to how their identity is potentially being manipulated by pose and setting; the early documentary portraits of David Octavious Hill and Robert Adamson, John Thomson and  Frank Meadow Sutcliffe take us out of the studio and away from the privileged classes and, for the first time in history, bring us face to face with the common man as the main subject. Ii is in these early documentary photographs that we learn something of both individual and social identity and much about the society in which the ordinary person lived.

Photography developed rapidly in the period between 1838 when Daguerre showed his views of the Boulevard du Temple and the end of the century and photographic portraiture was in the vanguard of this development. The earliest portraits often introduce us to the photographers of the late 1830s and early 1840s who experimented with self portraits as they honed their skills but by the end of the period the subject matter had expanded from the social circle of the early practitioners to the great and the good of their times and to the ordinary man. Along the way photographers explore the genre to such an extent that most contemporary approaches can be referenced to the work of Cameron, Stieglitz, Riis, Thomson and their contemporaries.

Notes on Text

(i) The Art History (3) website is very specific that “portraits are works of art that record the likeness of humans or animals”

(ii) Other than the monarch and his or her consort.

(iii) Probably as much to do with helping the sitter to stay still for 30 second exposures as they are props.

(iv) I suggest that despite Cameron’s posthumous appropriation as a feminist icon that she uses the word ‘man’ in its correct sense, i.e as in ‘mankind’, the human race. Bill Jay includes an interesting note on this subject in EndNotes (8) “The irony is that “man” at root is not gender specific, recognised in the word ‘mankind’ to denote the whole human race. ‘Mann’ in old English meant human being. All humans were menn, the term being used for both sexes. In a church document from the Middle Ages the progeny of Adam and Eve were described as ‘descended from two men’. “

(v) Cameron wrote to Sir John Herschel “My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and ideal sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty” (9)

(vi) Beamont Newhall (12) describes the Nadar studio as employing 26 staff and explains that the establishments of the famous 19th century photographers were a far cry from the individually created work of contemporary practitioners. “The photographer who signed the finish product seldom did more than pose the sitters, and not always that. He was the chief executive and artistic director of a highly trained staff.”



(1) Clarke, Graham. 1997) The Photograph. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

(2) The Tate Dictionary of Art. iPhone app.

(5) Bailey, David. (2014) Bailey’s Stardust: Published to accompany the exhibition Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 6th February to 1st June 2014, London, National Portrait Gallery

(6) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.

(7) Angier, Roswell. (2007) Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography. London: Bloomsbury.

(8) Jay, Bill (2009) LensWork #83: the Best of Bill Jay’s EndNotes. (Kindle Edition 2011) Anacortes: LensWork Publishing

(10) Jeffrey, Ian (1997) The Photo Book. London: Phaidon

(12) Newhall, Beaumont (1982) The History of Photography. New York: The Museum of Modern Art

(14) Shaw, Bill Eglon (1978) Frank Meadow Sutcliffe: A Second Selection. Whitby: The Sutcliffe Gallery

(15) Shaw, Michael ( 1990) Frank Meadow Sutcliffe: A Third Selection. Whitby: The Sutcliffe Gallery

(16) Shaw, Bill Eglon (1974) Frank Meadow Sutcliffe: A Selection. Whitby: The Sutcliffe Gallery


(3) Art History. Art History Definition: Portrait and Portraiture. (accessed at Art history 5.12.15) –

(4) National Portrait Gallery. Gallery History. (accessed at The National Portrait Gallery 5.12.15) –

(9) Cameron, Julia Margret. (accessed at The J. Paul Getty Museum 12.12.15) –

(11) Nadar (accessed at Atget Photography 12.12.15) –

(13) Sutcliffe, Frank Meadow (accessed at the Sutcliffe Gallery 12.12.15) –



This entry was posted in 1 - Historic Photographic Portraiture, Research & Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Nineteenth Century Photographic Portraiture

  1. Catherine says:

    I found this quite engrossing. I think I now understand ‘documentary portrait’ better. WAs struck again by how ‘real’ Sutcliffe’s photographs are – almost like being there.

  2. The quality of the prints even in these pamphlet-like books is remarkable and I would like to see the originals which I assume must be on display in Whitby. The sharpness makes them feel surprisingly modern although the tones rather date them.

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