Profiling Portraits: Occupational Portraits of the 19th Century

The basic goal of a portrait is to capture the likeness of the subject. But a portrait can offer a lot more information than simply the shape of a face. As with all visual images, portraits lend themselves to further exploration. Why was the portrait made? What does it tell the viewer about the subject beyond their appearance? Did the format affect the result? For example, in non-photographic portraits, the vanity of the sitter or the skill of the artist might alter reality. In photographs, we can look at the goals of both the photographer and the subject. Why that pose, with these items, in those clothes, with that expression when the shutter clicked? What other factors influence how a portrait is conceived and received?

In this occasional series, Profiling Portraits, we’ll think about all these influences and questions as we explore portraits in all their myriad formats within the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division.

[Foremen, Phoenix Fire Company and Mechanic Fire Company, Charleston, South Carolina] Daguerreotype by Tyler & Co., circa 1855. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g06607

[Foremen, Phoenix Fire Company and Mechanic Fire Company, Charleston, South Carolina] Daguerreotype by Tyler & Co., circa 1855. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g06607

We start our exploration in the mid-19th century, around the birth of the photographic portrait, when portraits suddenly took minutes to create, instead of hours. Studio portraits commonly included props, furniture and backdrops. However, occupational portraits took the use of supplemental objects to a new level. Subjects indicated their occupation or trade through the items in hand and the clothes they wore. In some cases, they even pretended to work at their chosen profession. When people prepare to pose for a portrait, they often put on their finest clothing. What drives a person to change into their work clothes and hold an implement of  their trade, instead?

The daguerreotype, one of the earliest photographic formats, was often used for portrait photography, and many of our collections’ occupational portraits are in this one-of-a-kind, 19th century format.

Try this game as you look. Study the photos below without reading the captions. Can you tell what the sitter’s occupation is purely from studying the details of the portrait? Let’s start with a fairly easy one, at right. I think the headgear might give it away!

 
[Occupational portrait of a blacksmith, three-quarter length, facing front, holding a horseshoe with pliers in one hand, and a hammer in the other] Daguerreotype, between 1850 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g03948

[Occupational portrait of a blacksmith, three-quarter length, facing front, holding a horseshoe with pliers in one hand, and a hammer in the other] Daguerreotype, between 1850 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g03948

 
[Occupational portrait of a cooper, three-quarter length, with barrel and tools] Daguerreotype, between 1840 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.50239

[Occupational portrait of a cooper, three-quarter length, with barrel and tools] Daguerreotype, between 1840 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.50239

[Occupational group portrait of four shoemakers, one full-length, standing, other three seated, holding shoes and shoe making equipment] Daguerreotype, between 1840 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51946

[Occupational group portrait of four shoemakers, one full-length, standing, other three seated, holding shoes and shoe making equipment] Daguerreotype, between 1840 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51946

In the field. Photo copyrighted 1876 October 27. [Photograph shows occupational portrait of taxidermist Martha A. Maxwell with dead animal and rifle.] //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.35607

In the field. Photo copyrighted 1876 October 27. [Photograph shows occupational portrait of taxidermist Martha A. Maxwell with dead animal and rifle.] //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.35607

In the work room. Photo copyrighted 1876 October 27. {Photograph shows occupational portrait of taxidemist Martha A. Maxwell with animal specimens, palette, and rifle.] //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.35605

In the work room. Photo copyrighted 1876 October 27. {Photograph shows occupational portrait of taxidermist Martha A. Maxwell with animal specimens, palette, and rifle.] //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.35605

[Occupational portrait of a watchmaker, three-quarter length, seated at table with watches] Daguerreotype, between 1840 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g04072

[Occupational portrait of a watchmaker, three-quarter length, seated at table with watches] Daguerreotype, between 1840 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g04072

Newton Stevens, Son of Otis & Sarah Stevens. One time music teacher also classroom teacher. Photo by J. F. Holley, between 1870 and 1880. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.11054

Newton Stevens, Son of Otis & Sarah Stevens. One time music teacher also classroom teacher. Photo by J. F. Holley, between 1870 and 1880. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.11054

[Occupational portrait of two African American chimney sweeps] Photo by Charles D. Fredricks & Co., between 1860 and 1870. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10990

[Occupational portrait of two African American chimney sweeps] Photo by Charles D. Fredricks & Co., between 1860 and 1870. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10990

[Mexican War drummer] Daguerreotype, between 1846 and 1848. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.38362

[Mexican War drummer] Daguerreotype, between 1846 and 1848. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.38362

[Occupational portrait of an unidentified surveyor with a transit on a tripod and holding dividers and a map, three-quarter length, seated] Daguerreotype, between 1840 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g03941

[Occupational portrait of an unidentified surveyor with a transit on a tripod and holding dividers and a map] Daguerreotype, between 1840 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g03941

[Occupational portrait of a latch maker] Daguerreotype, between 1850 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g03597

[Occupational portrait of a latch maker] Daguerreotype, between 1850 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g03597

[Occupational portrait of a woman working at a sewing machine] Other title: Seamstress. Daguerreotype, circa 1853. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.04496

[Occupational portrait of a woman working at a sewing machine] Other title: Seamstress. Daguerreotype, circa 1853. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.04496

[Sisters Lucretia Electa and Louisa Ellen Crossett in identical skirts, blouses, and jewelry with weaving shuttles] Ambrotype by Alfred Hall, 1859 September 26. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.36964

[Sisters Lucretia Electa and Louisa Ellen Crossett in identical skirts, blouses, and jewelry with weaving shuttles] Ambrotype by Alfred Hall, 1859 September 26. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.36964

 [Occupational portrait of a peddler, full-length, standing, facing front, with two bags held at his sides by a harness, neck brace visible between legs] Daguerreotype by Myers, between 1840 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g04161

[Occupational portrait of a peddler, full-length, standing, facing front, with two bags held at his sides by a harness, neck brace visible between legs] Daguerreotype by Myers, between 1840 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g04161

Learn More:

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.