Thursday, January 22, 2009

Remember when?

This image was dated in the late 1800's - I believe it was taken in Germany. I purchased it in an antique frame at a flea market some 20 years ago. It needed restoration, which I completed recently. I thought it rather nicely depicted the early days of my profession. The space occupied by this studio is not unlike the space I currently occupy... sans the skylight.

Portrait studios like this found their way in to society as photography technology advanced - prior to this, painted portraits were generally regarded as the privilege of the wealthy. Regarding the emerging portraitists, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake wrote in 1857: "... were it not a half a generation ago the existence of such a vocation was not dreamt of; tens of thousands are now following a new business, practising a new pleasure, speaking a new language and bound together by a new symphony". These words, written more than 150 years ago, could also be spoken about the changes in photography just during the last decade, or so.

That was a period in which portraiture was perhaps more characterised for the quantity of production, rather than by its quality. Some photographers were more concerned with making a quick profit than to "portray" the sitter. The lighting for many of these was uninteresting, the setting so often stereotyped that one can almost date the photography by the props. Some of these images show evidence of very fast impersonal photography, where the practitioner was out to make a quick kill and had little or no time or interest for the sitter as a person. In some cases again, not to different from today.

The purpose for this discussion is to point out how little things have changed for the portrait, as far as art is concerned. Prior to photography, the creation of a hand painted portrait was time consuming and relied on the extensive experiences and talent of the artist. Only the wealthy could afford this. Today, with the advent digital photography, the portraitist has not only their camera and lighting, but also the computer palette to create a portrait that is again, personal for the subject. It is also a lot more affordable.

More can be said about the value of classic portraiture as opposed to contemporary portrait photography... I believe it starts with the understanding, practice and knowledge of classic photography, that can then transcend to the contemporary realm. Regardless of the style, the most important value is that the portrait is timeless...

HERE is an interesting read regarding the history of photography.

The Milwaukee Public Museum has a replica of a turn of the century portrait studio in it's "Streets of Old Milwaukee" display. The photographers studio is a "walk-up" at one of the buildings