The Victorian Selfie
In today's world everything is documented through the use of photographs, and it's crazy to think that once upon a time say back in the Victorian period the art of photography was just being discovered. There were no cellphones or digital cameras where with the click of a button a moment could be captured and saved forever. However, even though the act of taking a photograph wasn’t as efficient as it is today the fascination with capturing moments in time was just as big of an obsession as it is now. Back then everyone was just as obsessed with having his or her picture taken the only difference was the label. Instead of it being called a selfie it’s called a portrait.
The Victorian era was the time period where photography went through many developments, and with photography being so new there were many who tried to perfect the photographic system, which is why in the Victorian period there were several processes used to take photographs, and each process led to a different end result. There were many, who contributed to the enhancement of photography, but overall there were three main methods used in the Victorian era, and they were the Daguerreotype, the cyanotype, and the wet collodion process. It all started in 1839, with Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre who was the creator of the Daguerreotype. This process required a sensitized copper plate that had to be coated with a thin layer of silver. The plate would then be exposed to light through the camera, which would result in the print of a permanent image. However, this process was very slow and required a lot of patience because the subject of each photo was required to remain motionless for twenty minutes. Eventually this process was improved and it only required a two-minute exposure time, which was much better for human subjects. Then in 1842, John Herschel (who was the first person to ever print an image on glass in 1839) developed a new process called cyanotype, and what makes this process different is its one of the only processes that does not use silver. Instead this process uses ferric salts, which gives the end result a blue-image print. This process never became very popular for portraits, but it became the foundation for the blueprint copying industry.
The next photographic advancement was the wet-collodion process, which was created by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. The wet-collodion process is very similar to a darkroom process except the photo needs to be developed right away, which is why this was considered “the making on location photography” process because photographers who used this method would have portable darkrooms. This method was different because the photo was actually printed on a glass plate. The plate would have to be coated in this special collodion mixture that prior to being used would have to be left to age for about a week. Then once the solution is ready the glass plate would need to be covered with the mixture, and then placed in a bath of silver nitrate for about three to five minutes. Once the plate is done bathing in the silver nitrate it would be placed into the camera and exposed to the light for however long the photographer decides (could be a few seconds maybe a minute). Once the exposure is done the plate needs to immediately be processed in a dark room otherwise the chemicals will dry and the photo will be destroyed. After the plate is removed it goes through the process of first being bathed in developer (a chemical mixture that causes the image to appear). Then the plate is bathed in water to stop the development of the photo, and last it is placed in a bath of fixer, which is a chemical mixture that makes the image permanent. After the fixer you rewash the plate with water to get rid of all the fixer solution because it can be harmful. As you can see the wet-collodion process is a long process that requires a lot of patience, but most photography processes in the Victorian era all require a lot of patience.
There were many famous photographers in the Victorian period but one name that most people know is Lewis Carroll because he is not only a photographer but a writer as well. Lewis Carroll did a lot of great things with his career in photography he took pictures that really showed the essence of little girls in the Victorian era. Many believed him to have more than an interest in little girls, but with that put aside he truly was a great photographer and writer. His photographs really showed how girls were expected to be and act like women at such a young age. However, besides Lewis Carroll being a photographer he was also a writer, and he wrote a beautiful poem called Hiawatha’s Photographing. Hiawatha’s Photographing is a story about a photographer named Hiawatha who lives in the 19th century and takes photos of a family who can never remain still enough to actually take any photos. This poem describes the struggles of all photographers in the Victorian period because most methods require the subject to remain still for about 2 minutes and who can easily remain still for even just a minute. Photographers in the 19th century have the most patience because they have to deal with all kinds of subjects who can’t or won’t remain still for the photograph. A quote from the poem that describes the struggles of a photographer is here:
This he perched upon a tripod,
Crouched beneath its dusky cover
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence
Said "Be motionless, I beg you!"
Mystic, awful was the process.
This stanza from the poem describes how the photographer would be set up to take a photograph, and how not only is the subject in an uncomfortable position but the photographer is too. The photographer must remain in a crouched position under a tarp and observe as the exposure takes place. Through this poem anyone can get a real feel for what it means to be a photographer in the 19th century.
Besides all the new methods being created for photography another interesting thing that was happening was that women were taking up photography as a career. In the 19th century women were usually just housewives; their job was to take care of their family and the household, but with photography women began to do more. Some women even became very well known as a photographer such as Julia Margaret Cameron who didn’t start her career in photography till late in her life, but still was very influential with her photos. Julia took up photography when she was forty-eight years old because her daughter gave her a camera as a gift. Julia was a classic Victorian wife who was devoted to her six children and her husband, but at the age of forty-eight she had the freedom to seek out her own pleasures because all her children were married and all grown up. Julia is a great example of the strength and elegant character of women back in the 19th century because she only started taking photos as a hobby, but she made it her mission to learn everything about photography. She wanted to be a professional photographer, but not a famous one. Julia ended up becoming very famous because her photos of high class (celebs) became well known. Julia took portraits of many famous people and her and Lewis Carroll even took photos of some of the same people (Alice Liddell). Portraits are the equivalent to a selfie in today’s world, which makes Julia a professional selfie taker. Portraits were all the rage in the 19th century, and in some works of literature photographs began to be mentioned and used. For example, in Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy there is a part when Jude finds a portrait of himself and it is the first time he has ever seen a photograph of himself. This photo stirs up a lot of emotions in Jude, which just goes to show you what a big impact photographs have on people back then still exist today. The power of one photograph is endless.
When thinking about the art of photography in the perspective of the Victorian era you can kind of get a feel for what people were like back in the 19th century. For example, no matter what method of photography you use from the 19th century all of them are time consuming. Each method shows how Victorians were patient, and strong, whereas, in today’s world everyone is the complete opposite. Everyone is always in a rush and no one has the patience of a Victorian. The Victorian period was the beginning for photography and it was a very important discovery. It led to many famous pictures and moments being captured. Through photographers like Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron the lifestyle and characteristics of the Victorian era were captured in photographs.
- 1. Howell-Koehler, Nancy. "Chapter 1: Introduction." Photo Art Processes. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, 1980. 7-14. Print.
- 2. Howell-Koehler, Nancy. Photo Art Processes. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, 1980. Print.
- 3. Smith, Lindsay. "Chapter 2: This Old House: Julia Margaret Cameron and Lady Clementina Hawarden." The Politics of Focus: Women, Children, and Nineteenth-century Photography. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998. 35-51. Print.
- 4. Smith, Lindsay. "Chapter 5: Take Back Your Mink: Lewis Carroll, Child Masquerade and the Age of Consent." The Politics of Focus: Women, Children, and Nineteenth-century Photography. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998. 95-110. Print.
- 5. Video showing the wet-collodion process: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/video/134942/photography:-the-wet-collodion-process/
- 6. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/camr/hd_camr.htm