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.
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!
- View 19th century occupational portraits in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- Portraits have been a favored subject for writers of this blog for years. Explore previous Picture This posts related to portraits.
- Explore and learn more about daguerreotypes in the Prints and Photographs (P&P) Division:
- A few of the examples above are cartes-de-visite from the William A. Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs. Explore the Gladstone Collection online. View a selection of images from the Gladstone Collection in a previous Picture This post: Featuring the Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs.
- Read about Popular Photographic Print Processes Represented in the Prints and Photographs Division, including the ambrotype and daguerreotype.