American Society and the Democratic Portrait

Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, March 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

American Society and the Democratic Portrait


The simple portrait dominated American photography, just as it had dominated American painting during the two preceding centuries. More often than not, men and women would sit or stand frozen in time and space, revealing little about their character.

Americans seldom smiled in portraits. They seemed intuitively to understand the ennobling effects of portraiture. Intensely serious, their expressions were eternal, timeless, and imbued with either self-importance or self-reflection. After all, no one ever recalled a portrait of the national hero George Washington, or any other worthy figure in the popular prints of the day, grinning foolishly. Such animated, fleeting, and frivolous expressions were more suited to the genre paintings of artists such as William Sidney Mount or George Caleb Bingham than they were to ancestral portraits with all the weighty tradition they implied. For the gentleman, or would-be gentleman, behavioral restraint had always been prized. It is what separated him from the lower classes, who often faced ridicule for their lack of proper manners, like the country yokel who came to the tintype operator "to get a five cent picter tuk."

Though generally optimistic and adventurous, Americans as individuals were not particularly spontaneous or demonstrative. Contemporary observer Adam G. de Gurowski noted in 1857 that Americans "give the impression that they either do not care or do not understand how to win from life the cheerful, congenial, exhilarating side. At such moments the pang of severe duty seems to furrow their brow, rarely and only occasionally irradiated with impulsive joyousness. ... Americans-on the average-seem not to possess the rich gift of extemporizing pleasures. Their enjoyments must be prepared, deliberated, but do not flow from the drift of the moment."1

Then again, maybe Americans were simply intimidated by the piercing eye of the photographer's camera, the strange intensified light in the room, or the smell of unfamiliar chemicals. Perhaps it simply seemed unnatural to hold a smile, even for the few seconds required to take a likeness.

Sometimes an individual would strike a pose that seemed natural to his or her character. Most succumbed to the uninspired textbook poses arranged by the operator, if posing was required or desired at all. In general, most portrait photographers seemed to understand at least the basic requirements of a good composition. Some never got it. As in painting, group portraits were more complicated to pose than individual portraits. An experienced photographer knew how to add variety to a portrait of multiple sitters and even encouraged some to glance away from the camera.

Gestures were often intimate. Holding hands was common, even for men. Expressions of familial affection were accepted in nineteenth-century American society, but intertwined hands and arms were also ways by which the photographer could help his subjects sit still for the length of time required for an adequate exposure. In most cases, the photographer used stationary aides to remind his client to remain motionless. Posing stands and headrests were designed for this purpose. Lightly touching tables, pedestals, and tall chairs worked almost as well.

In general, props were kept to a minimum. Fluted columns and swags of drapery imitated sophisticated painted portraiture. They testified to the upright character, social prominence, and wealth of the sitter, real or imaginary. Backdrops could be of plain woolen cloth, or elaborate paintings of fashionable parlors or picturesque landscapes. Most of the items that were photographed with a sitter were part of the paraphernalia of the photographer's studio. Simple tables, fancy chairs, garden gates, common books, photographic cases, albums, and stereoscopes often made their way into a portrait. Sometimes sitters brought their own props into the studio.

In 1872 Edward M. Estabrooke identified two kinds of ferrotype customers in The Ferrotype, and How to Make It. …

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