Jayne Shrimp­ton looks at how the world of pho­tog­ra­phy has de­vel­oped through the years

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Jayne Shrimp­ton is the au­thor of Trac­ingYourAnces­torsThrough Fam­i­lyPho­tographs

We delve into the oc­cu­pa­tion of the pho­tog­ra­pher and re­veal how it has de­vel­oped through the years

Com­mer­cial stu­dio pho­tog­ra­phy emerged as an oc­cu­pa­tion in 1841 when the first Bri­tish por­trait rooms opened their doors to the pub­lic of­fer­ing lux­ury da­guerreo­type pho­to­graphs.

Ini­tially es­tab­lished only in ma­jor cities, dur­ing the 1850s the num­ber of stu­dios rose sig­nif­i­cantly as the new wet col­lo­dion process de­vel­oped and pho­tog­ra­phy be­came more af­ford­able and con­ve­nient for both prac­ti­tioner and cus­tomer. Through­out the 1860s, grow­ing de­mand for card-mounted carte de vis­ite prints in­spired a surge in stu­dio pho­tog­ra­phy and the in­dus­try con­tin­ued to ex­pand un­til the mid-1910s. Af­ter the First World War it be­gan to de­cline as more house­holds and in­di­vid­u­als ac­quired their own cam­eras, which they en­thu­si­as­ti­cally used to pho­to­graph all man­ner of oc­ca­sions. For­mal stu­dio por­traits re­tained their su­pe­rior sta­tus, but as am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­phy grew more pop­u­lar they be­came re­served for spe­cial events. Many high street stu­dios went out of busi­ness be­tween the world wars.

Dur­ing the hey­day of stu­dio pho­tog­ra­phy, this line of work of­fered the po­ten­tial for prac­ti­tion­ers to earn a de­cent liv­ing, al­though there was al­ways sig­nif­i­cant com­mer­cial com­pe­ti­tion. En­trepreneurs from all walks of life were tempted to try their hand at the trade, which in­volved el­e­ments of sci­ence and art, some com­bin­ing stu­dio pho­tog­ra­phy with other oc­cu­pa­tions such as jew­eller and watch­maker, hair­dresser, prin­ter and

En­trepreneurs were tempted to try their hand at pho­tog­ra­phy

sta­tioner, to­bac­conist and even baker. Some dipped in and out of the pro­fes­sion, while oth­ers fo­cused ex­clu­sively on pho­tog­ra­phy, build­ing up a sub­stan­tial clien­tele, per­haps in time ex­tend­ing their premises or open­ing fur­ther lo­cal stu­dios, even ex­pand­ing into other ge­o­graph­i­cal ar­eas. Some of the best known and most suc­cess­ful stu­dio pho­tog­ra­phers ran large chains, such as A& G Tay­lor, which flour­ished in the 1880s and 1890s, while oth­ers were short-lived busi­nesses that left no per­ma­nent record.

Stu­dio work

Pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers did not have to un­dergo a for­mal ap­pren­tice­ship, but needed to in­vest in com­plex ap­pa­ra­tus and learn how to use it ef­fec­tively, aided by pub­lished man­u­als and/or by first gain­ing ex­pe­ri­ence as a pho­tog­ra­pher’s as­sis­tant in an­other stu­dio.

He or she also re­quired a suit­able space where light­ing con­di­tions were ad­e­quate for pho­tograph­ing clients, es­pe­cially be­fore elec­tric­ity be­came avail­able in the late-1800s.

Some new en­trants to the pro­fes­sion be­gan by op­er­at­ing from a spare room at home, be­fore tak­ing the next step of se­cur­ing premises in a town cen­tre. Larger es­tab­lish­ments ran sev­eral sep­a­rate stu­dio rooms within one build­ing so that mul­ti­ple clients could be pho­tographed si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Th­ese busi­nesses could eas­ily pro­duce sev­eral thou­sand por­trait pho­to­graphs, or more, each year. How­ever, the work was sea­sonal to an ex­tent: short win­ter days and dark skies meant fewer sit­tings, while longer sum­mer days and bright weather fa­cil­i­tated ex­tended work­ing hours and more busi­ness.

Most pro­pri­etors of stu­dios em­ployed sev­eral staff – as­sis­tant pho­tog­ra­phers and stu­dio hands who helped to shift props around, ad­justed light­ing and who also pro­cessed and printed the pho­tos be­hind the scenes.

Typ­i­cally, a pho­tog­ra­pher’s fam­ily were in­volved in the busi­ness. Sons and of­ten wives and daugh­ters learned aspects or all el­e­ments of the trade.

Women fre­quently ran the re­cep­tion area of a stu­dio and also as­sisted fe­male clients in the chang­ing rooms. Many were ac­tive in the print­ing works, too.

Some women were in­de­pen­dent pho­tog­ra­phers, start­ing busi­nesses in their own name. Oth­ers took over the fam­ily stu­dio when their hus­band died, like El­iza (Mrs Charles) Hawkins, who from c1871 ran her de­ceased hus­band’s Brighton stu­dio for at least 40 years, ex­pand­ing the busi­ness and even open­ing a branch in Bath.

The main pro­fes­sional risk for a stu­dio pho­tog­ra­pher was in­suf­fi­cient trade, al­though there were also po­ten­tial dan­gers at­tached to the work – some died in ex­plo­sions or through chem­i­cal poi­son­ing. As new

In 1851, just 51 pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers were recorded

in Bri­tain. In 1871, there were

over 4,700

pro­cesses de­vel­oped, pho­tog­ra­phers kept abreast of chang­ing tech­niques. By the 1880s, the in­tro­duc­tion of dry pho­to­graphic plates and other tech­ni­cal ad­vances en­abled com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phers to un­der­take more work on lo­ca­tion, away from the stu­dio.

Most high street pho­tog­ra­phers were en­gaged in tak­ing com­mon­place stu­dio por­traits of lo­cal res­i­dents, al­though a few up­mar­ket es­tab­lish­ments be­came famed for pho­tograph­ing roy­alty and the so­cial elite. Por­trait pho­tog­ra­phy re­mained im­por­tant to the av­er­age stu­dio pho­tog­ra­pher, al­though some di­ver­si­fied into land­scapes, too. Cer­tain pho­tog­ra­phers spe­cialised in par­tic­u­lar gen­res, such as aca­demic or mil­i­tary portraiture, de­pend­ing on their ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion. Stu­dios in sea­side re­sorts were kept busy tak­ing pho­to­graphic sou­venirs of vis­i­tors dur­ing the hol­i­day sea­son.

Suc­cess­ful lo­cal pho­tog­ra­phers may have pho­tographed gen­er­a­tions of the same fam­i­lies, nearby work­places and events, mak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the life of their com­mu­nity.

Pho­tog­ra­pher kin

Thou­sands of our fore­bears worked as com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phers be­tween the mid-19th and mid-20th cen­turies al­though scarcely any of their stu­dios still ex­ist to­day. It is dif­fi­cult to track down stu­dio staff – as­sis­tant pho­tog­ra­phers, colourists and so on, but more eas­ily trace­able are pho­tog­ra­phers who op­er­ated stu­dios in their own right and whose name may oc­cur in con­tem­po­rary records.

If your an­ces­tor was a well-known pho­tog­ra­pher pa­tro­n­ised by roy­alty and the fa­mous per­son­al­i­ties of their day, then there should be a good deal of in­for­ma­tion about them. Ar­chive ma­te­rial from their stu­dio in the form of glass plate neg­a­tives, busi­ness ledgers and other records may have been ac­quired by the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery in Lon­don or a re­gional ar­chive or record of­fice.

Most pho­tog­ra­phers ran or­di­nary stu­dios cater­ing for lo­cal work­ing- or middle-class clients, but it should still be pos­si­ble to dis­cover some­thing of their ac­tiv­i­ties. Any pho­tog­ra­pher op­er­at­ing a com­mer­cial stu­dio for sev­eral years or more may be recorded on the census, ad­ver­tised in re­gional trade di­rec­to­ries and ap­pear in the col­umns of lo­cal news­pa­pers.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, it is nec­es­sary to con­sult th­ese orig­i­nal sources, but the re­search may al­ready have been done and there are many use­ful re­gional web­sites and data­bases pro­vid­ing A-Z list­ings of pho­tog­ra­phers and, in some cases, bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tails. Sev­eral sites are freely search­able and can be very in­for­ma­tive, while oth­ers charge a small fee for stu­dio data. A list of on­line sources cov­er­ing Bri­tish and Ir­ish pho­tog­ra­phers/stu­dios by ge­o­graph­i­cal re­gion is pub­lished in My An­ces­tor Was a Stu­dio Pho­tog­ra­pher by Robert Pols (So­ci­ety of Ge­neal­o­gists, 2011). A se­lec­tion of the best is in­cluded in our Top Web­sites sec­tion.

Fi­nally, we should not over­look the value of sur­viv­ing ex­am­ples of the work of our pho­tog­ra­pher an­ces­tors – the neat card-mounted pho­to­graphs that also func­tioned as stu­dio trade cards. By the time pho­tog­ra­phy reached a mass mar­ket in the 1860s, pho­to­graphic prints were gen­er­ally pre­sented on card mounts, the back of which pro­vided an ideal space for print­ing the stu­dio name, ad­dress and other busi­ness in­for­ma­tion, such as their scale of charges and the years of any pho­to­graphic awards won by the stu­dio.

Ex­tant pho­to­graphs taken by named pho­tog­ra­pher kin may con­ceiv­ably be found in na­tional or lo­cal ar­chives and mu­se­ums, in il­lus­trated books, dis­played on pho­tog­ra­phy web­sites, even for sale on eBay and in car boot sales. No other tan­gi­ble prod­ucts of our fore­bears’ en­deav­ours have sur­vived in­tact in such large num­bers and if they can be ac­quired, there is some­thing very spe­cial about view­ing, even han­dling, old black-and-white pho­to­graphs taken by – or un­der the di­rec­tion of – our past fam­ily mem­bers.

A group of pho­tog­ra­phers and their as­sis­tants in the 19th cen­tury

A pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher con­sults with clients in his stu­dio, c1860

The pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio of Ed­ward Reeves in Lewes, East Sus­sex, was founded in 1855

A self-por­trait of pho­tog­ra­pher Her­mann Krone taken in 1858

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