Today we take photography for granted. It’s all so easy. We can raise our mobile phones, click, and instantly share images of our surroundings, our companions, our families, or even ourselves. In fact, some might argue that narcissism is the new cool!
With the dawn of widely-available photography, in the late 19th century, newspapers and magazines, just as they do today, began pondering the uses to which this new portraiture – the one by which you click a button and the image of the person is recorded for posterity – was being used, and how it might be used in the years ahead.
TAKING PHOTOS OF THE POOR
One use it was most certainly being put to was capturing images of the residents of London’s least salubrious districts.
STROLLING PHOTOGRAPHERS IN THE EAST END
Photographers were beginning to venture into the East End of London in order to record, for readers of the widely available news-sheets and magazines, and for posterity, likenesses of the people that they encountered in some of the most poverty-stricken parts of the Victorian Metropolis.
Those black and white photos capture likenesses of men women and children and it is interesting to look at their expressions, which are a mixture of pride, curiosity and uncertainty as they look towards the strange device, perhaps wondering what the finished article will be.
I often wonder, when I look at those old photographs of Victorian East Enders, whether the photographer ever returned and presented the families with a copy of the photo which they then hung proudly on the wall of their dwellings.
On the 19th of November 1887, the cover of the The Illustrated London News, featured an image of a girl that had been reproduced from a photograph (newsprint wasn’t yet at the stage where the actual photographic image itself could be published).
On page three it featured the following, whimsical, article about the photo and about the new interest for photography:-
“A sense of increased personal dignity and importance may innocently be felt by the child who has just had her photograph taken and some ladies and gentlemen of mature age, enjoying a tolerable degree of social recognition, betray similar gratification in collecting a multitude of likenesses of their amiable faces and imposing figures.
It is a common weakness of mankind in every class and race.
BANK HOLIDAY ITINERANT PHOTOGRAPHERS
On a bank holiday, when the itinerant photographer sets up his portable apparatus on Hampstead-heath. or some other suburban place of popular resort, small family groups, or the lover and the girl walking out together, are seen to take their stand, with bashful hesitation, in front of the camera and the veiled manipulator of chemicals and negative plates, and to fall into studied attitudes, with intensely earnest looks, awaiting the process which amounts to a verdict on their appearance in the eyes of the world.
EXPLORERS AND PHOTOGRAPHS
Travellers in Africa or Asia, or in the South Sea Islands, who in these times often carry with them, in default of sketchbooks and pencils, or of the artistic skill to use them, the modern scientific substitute for graphic delineation, tell us of the eagerness with which people of barbarous tribes, when once relieved from superstitious fears of malevolent magic in this mysterious practice, will subject their dusky countenances to the photographic ordeal.
A KIND OF SELF LOVE
If there be any sentiment which is universal, the “one touch of Nature” that proves all human hearts akin, it is that kind of self-love which delights in obtaining a special record of the individual personality, and in exhibiting it to others, not perhaps with vanity or pretensions to superiority, but with that simple desire of esteem which is the bond of domestic and social affections.
A FRANK INTEREST
The little maiden, in this picture by a German artist, which is the property of the Munich Photographic Union, is permitted apparently to inspect and compare two slightly different representations of her pretty form, supplied for approving choice; and is entitled, by her sex and age, to show a frank interest, which her parents and other fond elders will share, in the result of the important operation.
A HARMLESS PLEASURE
The facility and inexpensiveness of procuring such likenesses is a vast addition to the harmless pleasures of life.
Many of us can well remember the very first “daguerreotypes,” produced on silver plates, which were costly, imperfect, and not very pleasant in effect; before these, except the painted miniature portraits, which only the rich could order, there were the “silhouettes,” the profiles cut in black or bronzed paper stuck on cardboard, or modelled in black wax on a light ground, some of which, done more than half a century ago, now remain among the treasured family memorials in modest households all over the country.
Those cherished likenesses of long departed friends are still dear to their children and grandchildren, and with them are preserved the youthful figures of some of the playfellows of our infancy, who might, but for an early death, have been with us still on earth.
THE SAME IN THE FUTURE
It will be the same in the next generation, with many a photograph of the young people whom we love; though many of them – and this little girl, we hope – will live to pass through the natural changes of growth and prime and serene old age, and will some day, perhaps, again examine the faded likeness of a childhood that was happy enough, but that may have proved the commencement of a long life, enlarged with ampler sources of satisfaction.”