Portraiture has a long history. Since there has been art, there have been representations of people in paintings and sculptures. Portraiture expanded as an art form with the invention of daguerreotype photography in 1839. Prior to this, it was too expensive for the average person to have a portrait of themselves or a loved one made. Because photographs were cheaper to make and required less time to produce, they quickly exploded in popularity, creating a huge demand for portraits.
As photographic technology and film development improved, new types of prints emerged. Daguerreotypes were soon replaced by albumen prints, which were even cheaper to make. Carte-de-visite, the most popular type of albumen print, enjoyed peak popularity from 1860 to 1890. They were small photographs mounted on 2.5 × 4 inch cards. These “visiting cards” became very popular for sharing portraits with others. Carte-de-visite prints were also used in advertising, and prints of famous people were enthusiastically traded and collected.
Portrait photography would undergo another change when cheap, inexpensive cameras were made available to the general public. Prior to 1900, photography was largely an activity for experts or wealthy hobbyists. Eastman Kodak introduced the Brownie camera in 1900, a mass-market model that sold for $1.00, the equivalent to $30 dollars today. The Brownie sold 10 million units in just 5 years, far exceeding the company’s expectations, and opened photography up to everyone. People could now take photos of friends, family members, and special events whenever they wanted. They could record and document their lives in pictures for themselves.
19th Century Portrait Studio
When photography studios were first established, people were photographed seated against a plain background and lighting was achieved using the natural light of a window or soft light reflected through mirrors.
As studio photography advanced, portraits became more elaborate, employing painted backdrops and various props to enhance the scene. Drapes, furniture, painted architectural forms and other indoor items were used to create a “drawing room” feel. New lighting techniques led to new ways to convey a subject’s personality through the use of shadow and light.
Exhibit is free.
California State Library Building
900 N Street
Mead B. Kibbey Second Floor Gallery
Sacramento, CA 95814