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