We thank our colleague Kristi Finefield of the Library’s Prints and Photographs division for this post, excerpted from the original, previously published on the Picture This blog. The intriguing pictures first caught our attention, but we were drawn in by the questions and the processes Kristi described for seeking information from these visual sources. If you use any of these portraits with your students, please let us know in the comments what they noticed and how they reacted.
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?
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!