The Candid Camera of the Edwardian Tabloids

By Hiley, Nicholas | History Today, August 1993 | Go to article overview

The Candid Camera of the Edwardian Tabloids


Hiley, Nicholas, History Today


In the current debate on press photography and the right of privacy one mistake has been made time and again. Because the debate revolves around recent examples of press intrusion into the lives of politicians and members of the Royal Family, it is assumed that the problem itself must also be new. Yet almost all of the present argument on the rights of public figures to control their public image, and to protect their private lives, can in fact be traced to the 1890s and 1900s, when photographs first began to appear in newspapers and magazines.

Most portrait photography before the 1880s took place in the studio, where the professional photographer used the traditions of portrait painting to record not only the outward appearance of his sitters, but also their wealth and social status. Sumptuous studios, static cameras, and long exposures ensured that the process involved lengthy negotiation between the photographer and his subject, and if a portrait was afterwards reproduced without the sitter's permission the photographer could find himself in court.

Yet the development of faster photographic emulsions soon led to the production of practical hand cameras, by which a picture could be taken without its subject even knowing that a camera was present. The market was flooded with |detective cameras' that were guaranteed to take candid portraits. The first |detective camera' reached the British market in 1881, and by 1889 the American Camera Company |Demon Detective' plate camera was being openly advertised as equally effective |on the promenade, in Law Courts, churches, and railway carriages; also in Breach-of-Promise and Divorce cases; in fact, at all awkward moments, when least expected'.

By 1895 photographs were spreading rapidly through the illustrated magazines, and the new |snapshot' photographers dedicated themselves |to snap that which seems unsnappable. and which public exigencies often demand should not be snapped'. Freelance cameramen knew that candid images would always find a buyer, and during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 1897 one photographer was said to have been promised |an extravagant price' for a candid picture of Queen Victoria passing through London. As her carriage passed he thus let out a scream so piercing that, |turning aside her parasol. she peered for a moment in the direction of the balcony from which the shriek came', and he quickly took his picture.

By 1899 the public demand for candid pictures had grown so great that the Penny Pictorial Magazine began a regular page of photographs headed |Taken Unawares: Snap shots of celebrated people.' This feature was later given the more accurate sub-title |Surreptitious snapshots of celebrities', and in 1902 the problems which these stolen images brought to public life were amply demonstrated when illness forced Edward VII to postpone his coronation. The king decided to leave London for Portsmouth to convalesce, and gave minute instructions as to how his passage to the royal train should be screened from public view, but it was nevertheless reported that as he prepared to leave the station, |a man pushed forward to the closed carriage and attempted to take a snap-shot through the window'.

It was now impossible to escape the attentions of these cameramen, for it was claimed that |if it is known that some person whose name or personality is familiar to the public dislikes posing for the benefit of the photographer ... the snapshotters set themselves with special resolve to obtain what they term a negative'. By 1906 Edward VII was indeed such a focus of attention that it was said he could 'scarcely venture out of doors without being confronted with a battery of cameras ready to photograph him'. Yet he was no more secure at home, for one determined cameraman, sent to get candid snapshots of the king and his family at Sandringham, made a deal with the local baker's delivery man, |succeeded in concealing himself among the loaves, and from the baker's cart he got an excellent picture of the Royal children'. …

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