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Portraiture Genres of Photography

The Advent of Photography

Recognized for the invention of the daguerreotype in the 1830s, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (French, 1787–1851) is considered one of the fathers of photography. Working in collaboration with Jospeh Nicéphore Niépce (French, 1765–1833) with whom he had partnered in 1829, Daguerre continued experimentation after Niépce died and in 1939 went public with his invention of the daguerreotype. The daguerreotype was made by exposing a polished sheet of silver-coated copper plate that had been sensitized to receive light through a camera obscura producing a single, irreproducible image.

At the same time Daguerre was working in France, William Henry Fox Talbot (British, 1800–1877) was perfecting the calotype process in England and introduced it to the public in 1841. It was the first successful negative-positive process. In this process, paper sensitized with potassium iodide and silver nitrate solutions is exposed in a camera and then developed in acetic and gallic acids plus silver nitrate. The positive images are called salt prints and the advantage to printing from a negative was that multiple prints could be made. Some of the disadvantages of the early process were the lack of definition as compared to the daguerreotype, and it was subject to fading. Yet, it was this method—producing positive images from a negative—that lived on until the advent of digital photography.

Portrait Photography & Traditional Portraiture

The age of miniature painting became an early casualty in one of the century’s first skirmishes between painting and photography. Miniature paintings, or portrait miniatures, were small, personal painted portraits of family members and friends. The high cost of these portraits made them available only to the upper class. However, the daguerreotype—a one-of-a-kind, highly detailed image produced on a copper plate—was cheaper, quicker to produce, and truer to the subject’s likeness than the portrait miniature, causing the latter to fall out of vogue. Some contemporaries feared photography’s advantages would cause the practice to replace traditional art entirely. But traditional art forms endured, and photography became a resource for painters and sculptors, allowing them to more accurately portray their subjects and informing their depictions of visual experiences, such as those related to motion and perspective.

Unknown artist (British?), Portrait of a Gentleman (W. Leonard of Cheltenham, England?), nineteenth century, watercolor on ivory, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, 2004.2.

The portrait miniature originated in the courts of fifteenth-century France and England and flourished in America and England through the end of the Victorian era. Forerunners to the photograph, miniatures provided a convincing depiction of an individual for family and friends to keep near and were highly personal symbols of love and devotion.

Miniatures painted on ivory such as the example here, were very costly, and could range from $100 to $250, thereby making them available only to the elite and well-to-do. The growth of photography in the 1840s and 1850s had a dramatic effect on the demand for miniatures. While hand-painted miniatures continued to be produced by artists well into the early years of the twentieth century, pocket-sized photographs eventually supplanted them and satisfied the demand for small likenesses, while being more affordable for the general public.

This finely rendered portrait of a young, handsome gentleman is accompanied by a sheet of paper with an ink inscription: “W. Leonard/ Cheltenham/1828.”

Unknown artist (American), Silhouette Portrait of a Gentleman, nineteenth century, cut paper, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, gift of Mrs. H. H. Norton, 2005.2.2.

For patrons in nineteenth-century America and Britain who were not able to commission ivory portrait miniatures—some of which were priced at more than one-hundred dollars—the silhouette was a more affordable option. The origins of silhouettes can be traced to classical antiquity, and by the end of the seventeenth century in Europe the art form emerged as an independent genre. However, its golden age was experienced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some miniature silhouettes, such as miniatures on ivory, were set in jewelry and worn by loved ones.

The best miniature silhouettes captured the likeness of an individual by distinguishing the various features of a profile. Often simple in form, they consisted of the head and bust of the sitter cut from a black piece of paper or fabric mounted on a contrasting piece of white paper. Skilled silhouette cutters worked free-hand with scissors in the company of the sitter. Others employed more mechanical techniques which involved the use of a camera obscura, chairs outfitted with head clamps and candles, and automatic tracing arms to assist in rendering the outline of an individual’s face.

Demand for silhouettes was high throughout most of the nineteenth century. Regional and itinerant artists found commissions in their studios and at country fairs, where their skills were offered to a growing clientele. Silhouette cut-outs were often mounted, as in this example, in frames that featured reverse painting on glass. Gold embellishments in the corners of the oval mats draw attention to the sitter’s profile and provide an appropriate frame for the cut-outs.

The aesthetics and themes of traditional art similarly informed those of photography. Uncertainty about whether photography was a practical industrial process or a tool for aesthetic expression surrounded the practice at its birth. Pictorialism, a movement that saw photography as an art form rather than a mechanical record of a scene, employed many of the formal principles of existing art practice, including sensuous beauty, balanced compositions, and a compressed tonal range. The works of Henry Herschel Hay Cameron (British, 1852–1911) and Arnold Genthe (German-born American, 1869–1942) provide examples of Pictorialist works in this section.

Learn more about the interactions between traditional art and photography in the exhibit catalog Intersections: Painting, Drawing, and Photography (2014):

Arnold Genthe (German-born American, 1869–1942), Portrait of a Woman, circa early twentieth century, gelatin silver print, 10 ½ x 12 1/8 inches, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, 2011.4.

German-born, Arnold Genthe sailed to America in 1895 as a tutor for the son of a wealthy San Franciscan family. He became fascinated with San Francisco’s Chinatown. To photograph what was the reputedly inhospitable-to-outsiders Chinese quarter, he surreptitiously took photographs using a concealed hand-held camera. This early work became one of the first photographic ethnographies of a community. As an owner of a professional studio in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 earthquake, he is also known for his photographs documenting the aftermath of the disaster.

Highly educated, from a wealthy Berlin family, Genthe was at home with the elite of San Francisco, and his photographs became the “fashion” with San Franciscan clientele after his portrait studio opened in 1897. In 1911 he moved to New York. At the time, professional photographers posed their subjects in a way that Genthe thought was without life or expression. In his autobiography, Genthe related that he wanted to make portraits that were not posed, but rather to catch people when they didn’t know the exact moment of the exposure. He found that when he was able to do this the results were better and he became known for his trademark style of portraiture. His Portrait of a Woman may have been part of his commercial portraiture repertoire using this method. His style was also popular because he controlled light and shade to “highlight desirable features and obscure the less desirable.” Note in particular the compression of his value range (no bright whites, no rich blacks) and the shallow depth of the overall image—two formal properties of the Pictorialist movement.

Arnold Genthe (German-born American, 1869–1942), Portrait photograph of Greta Garbo, 1925–1942; from a negative taken July 1925, silver gelatin print, 12 7/8 x 9 7/8 inches unframed; 18 ¾ x 14 ¾ inches framed, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, purchased with the Suzanne Schrotberger Acquisition and Conservation Fund, 2016.5.

In the early twenties, Genthe photographed Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo (1905–1990), who was to become one of the greatest screen actresses of all time. Genthe credits his photographs as helping her to secure a contract with M.G.M. studios in his autobiography As I Remember.

Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance

Carl Van Vechten (American, 1880–1964) was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His interest in African-American culture began with his father’s involvement as co-founder of the Piney Woods School, a primary and secondary school for African American children in Mississippi. As part of the white, privileged community of Cedar Rapids, he gained an awareness of African-American culture through that involvement that he might not otherwise have attained. While a student at the University of Chicago, he was introduced to ragtime music in Chicago’s nightlife scene.

In 1906, he left for New York City and was hired as a music critic for The New York Times. Vechten knew many of the famous figures of the Harlem Renaissance. He was drawn to the explosion of creativity happening in Harlem and through his writing and friendships he played an important role in fostering white interest in Harlem.

He began taking portrait photographs in the 1930s of groundbreaking men and women in African-American art, literature, and culture. These writers, musicians, athletes, politicians, and others included such notaries as James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ella Fitzgerald, Althea Gibson, Langston Hughes, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Bessie Smith. In order to help preserve his images, 50 of Vechten’s original negatives were transformed by photographer Richard Benson (American, 1943–2017) into handmade gravure prints. Completed in 1983, in conjunction with the Eakins Press Foundation, these gravure prints were bound in an album titled ’O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes. Three gravures in the LVCFAC are from that collection.

Gravure Prints

This was a photomechanical process for reproducing the range of tones in a photographic image. A copper plate is covered with resin and a coating of dichromated gelatin is exposed to a transparent positive and etched in an acid bath. Much like an etching when inked, the areas which have been bitten into the plate by the acid hold ink to varying degrees. The inked plate is printed on a flatbed press and the impression of the plate can be detected on the paper with hand-pulled gravures. Notably, photographer Edward S. Curtis (American, 1868–1952) used this method to produce this rich, velvety look in his North American Indian series of twenty volumes published from 1907 to 1930.

Carl Van Vechten (American, 1880–1964), Portrait from the Portfolio O, Write My Name: Mahalia Jackson, 1962, gravure printed in 1983, hand-pulled gravures by Richard Benson and Thomas Palmer, plate sizes to 9 1/2 x 6 5/8 inches, sheet 11 x 14 inches, framed, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, 2015.8.3.

Printed 1983, in an edition of 100, published by Eakins Press Foundation, New York with accompanying letterpress caption:

There are certain women singers who possess, beyond all the boundaries of our appreciation for their art, an uncanny power to evoke our love . . . And as we encounter the simple dignity of their immediate presence, we suddenly ponder the mystery of human greatness. –Ralph Ellison [from the essay “As the Spirit Moves Mahalia”]

Once a maid and factory worker, [Mahalia Jackson] became the world’s foremost Gospel singer through the application of her musical passion, self-discipline and management skills. An inspiration to the Civil Rights movement, her singing reflected the religious and secular roots of black music.”

Carl Van Vechten (American, 1880–1964), Portrait from the Portfolio O, Write My Name: Marian Anderson, 1947, gravure printed in 1983, hand-pulled gravure by Richard Benson and Thomas Palmer, plate sizes to 9 1/2 x 6 5/8 inches, sheet 11 x 14 inches, framed, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, 2015.8.2.

Printed 1983, in an edition of 100, published by Eakins Press Foundation, New York with accompanying letterpress caption:

It’s so high you can’t get over it, / And so wide you can’t get round it. . . , // So low you can’t get under it, / You must come through by the living gate. . .–[from an old song]

After becoming a world famous contralto, [Marian Anderson] continued to study with noted teachers between concert appearances in Europe. In 1939, when refused the use of Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. by the D.A.R., she performed outdoor concerts at the Lincoln Memorial. Her autobiography is entitled My Lord, What a Morning.

Carl Van Vechten (American, 1880–1964), Portrait from the Portfolio O, Write My Name: Paul Robeson, 1933, gravure printed in 1983, hand-pulled gravure by Richard Benson and Thomas Palmer, plate sizes 9 1/2 x 6 5/8 inches, sheet 11 x 14 inches, framed, Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, 2015.8.1.

Printed 1983, in an edition of 100, published by Eakins Press Foundation, New York with accompanying letterpress caption:

I am a singer and an actor. I am primarily an artist. Had I been born in Africa . . . I would have liked my mature years to be a wise elder, for I worship wisdom and knowledge of the ways of men. –[Paul Robeson from a note 1936]

At Rutgers and Columbia Law School [Paul Robeson's] extraordinary gifts—athletic, musical, intellectual, theatrical—lent him an aura of heroism. His accomplishments brought him world fame, but because of his principled stands on political and social issues, he was forced to end his career in the United States.”

Peter A. Juley & Son, William James Glackens (American, 1870–1938) , reproduction, circa 1915, 25 ¼ x 21 inches, framed.

Originally, from Philadelphia, William Glackens studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and was one of the founders of the Ashcan School of Painting, known to themselves as “The Eight” due to their number. In addition to Glackens, it included artists Arthur Bowen Davies (American, 1862–1928), Robert Henri (American, 1865–1929), Ernest Lawson (Canadian-American, 1873–1939), George Luks (American, 1867–1933), Maurice Prendergast (American, 1858–1924), Everett Shinn (American, 1876–1953), and John French Sloan (American, 1871–1951) whose realistic work focused on gritty American urban life.

Glackens' photograph is part of The Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, now housed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Amassed over seventy years, the collection includes the work of over 11,000 artists and over 4,700 photographic portraits of artists. This body of work was the creation of German-born Peter A. Juley (1862–1937) who established a studio in New York in 1905. His son joined him in the business establishing one of the largest and most respected fine art studios in the city.