Academic journal article Afterimage

Folk Art Fantasies: Photographer's Backdrops

Academic journal article Afterimage

Folk Art Fantasies: Photographer's Backdrops

Article excerpt

The history of the painted backdrop begins shortly after the invention of photography in the 1830s. When this new picture-making process caught on it spread throughout the world in an amazingly short period of time. Much of this early camera work was performed on rooftops and at other convenient outdoor locations in order to catch the greatest amount of daylight. Although basic lighting systems made it technically possible for photography to move indoors, it was the introduction of the artist's ingenious device, an outdoor scene painted onto a canvas backdrop, that revolutionized the concept of picture making and created the illusion of another reality. Photographers eventually left their studio environments with their painted backdrops to establish a new form of itinerancy. From that time forward the tradition of the roving portrait photographer evolved, flourished through several generations and has been sustained, albeit tenuously, right up to the present day.

What had once been a profitable occupation was greatly diminished by the market success of the introduction of George Eastman's inexpensive Kodak camera in the late 1580s, which soon became an everyday household item. Enthusiasts could suddenly enjoy the thrill of making their own pictures. This revolutionary change happened almost overnight in the United States, as well as in other industrialized nations, and its impact on photographers was severe. Nevertheless, itinerants kept to the road, supplying cheap photographs to people in outlying areas. Their work was greatly aided by the eye-catching backdrops they often carried with them.

The typical photographic backdrop can best be described as an oversized painting on an expanse of cloth, generally of some heavy cotton weave or thin, pliable canvas, measuring approximately 8x10 feet. Sometimes lengths of standard-width cloth are stitched together to fabricate the appropriate dimensions needed to form the back wall of an itinerant photographer's booth or to successfully isolate clients in order to create an environment that transcends the reality of the studio. Loops or ties are sewn to reinforced edges and corners for added strength when stretching the panel taut. Patrons sit or stand in front of the decorated panels to have their pictures taken.

As folk art the photographer's painted backdrop is an often overlooked but nevertheless significant example of vernacular painting. Created primarily by self-taught artisans, its large-scale imagery is designed to dominate the photographer's workspace. One of the fascinating aspects of photographing with a painted background is the transforming blend of magic and reality that makes the subject indistinguishable from the painting, an illusion that is confirmed by the photograph itself. This occurs when the person being photographed appears to become part of the chosen setting rather than being superimposed against it. The painter's expertise sometimes worked its charm so thoroughly that country folk who had been photographed in front of a lavishly painted cityscape half believed later on that they had actually visited a modern metropolis.

Since their initial use painted backgrounds have been indispensible tools of the photographer's trade along with furniture and other accessories used in studio setups. They are probably more important to traveling photographers because their function is to excite and lure customers to the photographer's booth. Unfortunately, no matter how colorful a backdrop was, the resulting image was still always black and white. An exception, of course, was another very effective innovation: the hand-tinted photograph. For the difference in price, however, most were content to patronize the old-fashioned "bucket photographer" with his pictorial backdrop.

In the Eastern U.S. during the 1870s, an immigrant New Yorker named Jose Mora operated a successful photography establishment that boasted more than 150 painted backgrounds. …

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