A Historical Approach to Family Photography: Class and Individuality in Manchester and Lille, 1850-1914

By Hudgins, Nicole | Journal of Social History, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

A Historical Approach to Family Photography: Class and Individuality in Manchester and Lille, 1850-1914


Hudgins, Nicole, Journal of Social History


Every family has its joys and its horrors, but however great they may be, it's hard for an outsider's eye to see them; they are a secret. --Anton Chekhov (1)

Writing on nineteenth century photographic portraiture often celebrates pictures produced by the most luxurious metropolitan studios or upper-class amateurs. (2) Portraits and family photographs have also served as source material for Marxist, feminist, and postmodern critics. (3) Scholars have analyzed the portraits created by the likes of Nadar, Claudet, and Disderi - a group of photographers dominated by French-born metropolitan artists. Alternatively, pictorial analysis has focused on the signs and symbols of wealth and status, whether or not the subject is identifiable. Surveys of photography, or more specialized studies, have revealed the vanities and excesses of the upper class ladies and gentlemen who posed for those photographers' cameras. We see illustrations from the world of the Victorian theater, the Tuileries, military officers, and Whitehall, in addition to the celebrity authors of the day who posed for well-known photographers. We also see publications that feature or discuss portraits of the down-and-out from the cameras of John Thomson, Paul Strand, and others like Dr. Barnardo or Arthur Munby. (4) Few scholars, though, have investigated what personal photographs could have meant to their original owners.

The standard literature also explains that by the 1860s, hundreds of commercial studios throughout Britain and France began catering to ordinary Europeans seeking portraits. But, by focusing on the most valuable or iconic collections from, say, the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Prints Department of the Bibliotheque Nationale, curators and art historians have left the mystery unsolved, of exactly how portrait photography entered the lives of ordinary families. By "ordinary," I mean the millions of shopkeepers, mechanics, schoolteachers, and factory workers who also loved their portrait photographs. For, although many Victorianists agree that studio photography was affordable only to "the solid middle class" (5) and the wealthy, we nevertheless come across portraits and albums dating from the 1870s onward, which belonged to working-class individuals. Single portraits and collections are hidden in plain sight within municipal archives, private collections, and antique shops in countless towns around the world. How then were working-class and petit bourgeois men and women able to obtain photographs, despite the fact that such objects remained relatively expensive even after 1870 or 1880? The literature offers us few hints.

Here I will begin looking into the nature, meaning, and value of family photographs by analyzing portraits within a wider historical archive. Whether preserved by an institution or within a private collection, family photographs are visual pieces of a larger archive, which includes regional data and literature, autobiographies, interviews, photographic paraphernalia, official certificates, and hand-written letters. Drawing examples from two different regions, Lancashire and the Nord (and in particular the cities of Manchester and Lille), we will follow photographic recordings of marriage, work, social life, children, and death among working-class and petit bourgeois family collections. More importantly, we will explore why ordinary people in industrial towns began collecting photographic images, and how they used photography to build a visual sense of their own past.

A comparative framework - Anglo-French in this case--is useful for investigations of family albums, owing to the often scattered or scarce nature of the precious evidence. Where one region may offer a hint about trends and practices, another region can provide confirmation or counter-examples, which enrich our conclusions. Rut, even with comparative examples, we have to be careful not to generalize about private photographic practices, even within a particular region. …

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