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Friday, 17 February 2012


10 vignette portraits from the American Civil War era

"Do you only fix your glance upon it and leave your features here. Thus he spoke and he shut up the mirror with the picture trapped inside."
Statius; The Silvae

During the Civil War, Michigan sent 90 000 soldiers to fight and 14 749 died. The first figure must account for virtually every able bodied man in the state; the latter doesn’t include the war wounded who died later. Even though no one wears any obvious militaria such as a uniform or badges, the war informs all the portraits here. Given the numbers above, it is difficult to imagine any of these people lived through it without suffering personal loss. Take the woman portrayed here. The CDV can be dated to between 1862 and 1865 and she is probably in her early twenties. You can assume she lost brothers or friends. Partly because no one is identified in any of the portraits, because we don’t know anything at all about their lives, but also because they are ordinary citizens, death and tragedy are the things that come to mind first.

In the 1860s the U.S was a bit slow in cottoning on to the new technology available to photographers. In Europe the carte de visite and the collodion process rapidly made daguerreotypes and ambrotypes redundant so by 1861 they were scarcely in demand but in the US they remained as popular as CDVs. War usually hastens technology so if something is faster, cheaper and easier to use people jump on it. Maybe it was their singularity that preserved the daguerreotypes’ popularity. In the midst of war, the gift of a unique portrait would have meant much more than something replicated a dozen times.
For photographers however the arrival of the CDV overturned everything they’d been trained in regarding the production, economics and aesthetics of photography. A CDV could be reproduced ad infinitum, even if most sitters were happy with a dozen. Whereas the studio had once been a room with the only requirement that enough light was provided for the camera, with the CDV it became an integral part of the image. Studio props and backdrops were rare in daguerreotypes but with the new cartes they were considered de rigueur. To survive the studios had to adapt but that didn’t mean they had to abandon their old ways entirely or at once. The vignette portrait with the gold border was fashionable between about 1861 and 1865, the years when the daguerreotype was being phased out, and it owes something to its predecessor, especially in the way the focus was on the face. Extraneous details such as clothing weren’t that important to daguerreotypists or their customers, particularly if the portrait was to be put in a locket.   

They also owed a lot to the commercial art of portraiture that flourished in painting, intaglio and lithography before photography, when the vignette and the cameo were the most popular ways to present portraits. In the carte above the photographer added a pink blush to the woman’s cheeks and lips and dabs of black to her pupils. These techniques were widely used by daguerreotypists to give the illusion of colour. Done well, as here, they were barely noticeable. What is going on here isn’t so much a claim for photography to be recognized as art but a response to customer demand that it ought to look like it. These vignette portraits don’t attract anything like the attention other CDVs get but spend a bit of time studying them and they reveal a lot more about the sitter’s emotions. She has a sad weariness about her that doesn’t look staged.

Among the six studios identified in these cartes, John Carbutt is the best known, though not for his portraits. He was an early landscape photographer and one of the first in America to produce stereoviews. A lot of his work was on commission for the railways. He was also experimenting with dry plates and magnesium flash when they were still strictly theoretical for most photographers. Born in England in 1832, he was photographing in Canada in the 1850s and in 1861 he opened his first studio in Chicago, where, according to some sources, he introduced cartes de visite. This portrait was taken about 1867 or 68 when he had a studio on Washington St in Chicago. In 1868 he wrote a panegyric, Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men of Chicago, that included 93 of his portraits. Unfortunately the copies online don’t include the photographs so it is hard to say if this man was one of them. He has the look and demeanour of a leading citizen, in commerce you would think, rather than government, religion or culture. Carbutt may have been an excellent photographer but his writing was a deep tone of purple.

A contemporary of Carbutt’s, Gottshalk Grelling was born in Berlin in 1826 and by the 1850s was working as a daguerreotypist in Chicago, where he ran the “Gallery of Arts”; a common name for daguerreotype and photographic studios in the US. We know a little more about him – he married Adaline Byram, they had a daughter, he died in 1888 – but it’s the portrait rather than the photographer that gets our attention. Daguerreotypes tended to capture the detail in people’s faces better than the early CDVs and typical for the time, this one might have undergone some retouching. Still, part of the effect of vignetting is to leave you nothing but the face to contemplate and here we have a boy who almost certainly joined the 90 000 and possibly the 14 749. He doesn’t look like a shirker. Maybe it’s the suit but he appears destined for a life in commerce or banking, which in those days meant keeping a lot of figures in your head and a practical, unambivalent attitude to life. That’s all speculation of course. We have no idea who he was or what happened. He could have headed west and become a lawman.

In the 1860s. Chestnut St in Philadelphia was lined with photographers’ studios and Montgomery Pike Simons ran one of the better known establishments. He was producing daguerreotypes in Philadelphia in 1842 so was one of the earliest working photographers in the United States. Like Carbutt, he was interested in experimenting with technique and technology and published manuals on ivorytypes, colouring photographs and in 1859, Photography in a nut shell; or, The experience of an artist in photography, on paper, glass and silver. Despite the record, he appears to have slipped into obscurity compared to other American pioneers like Jeremiah Gurney and Charles Frederick. Sometimes you pass someone on the street and you think they have a face straight out of the Florentine renaissance, the 1920s or some other period. This man works the other way. He looks like people I know. He could be alive today.

The major studios aside, it was more common than not for photography to be part of a mixed business. Usually there was a connection so a lot of photographers were also jewellers, engravers or printers. Combining photography with upholstery and a furniture store was unusual. D. A. Simons, who did not appear to be any relation to Montgomery, ran his studio from his furniture store on Smyth’s Block in Manchester, New Hampshire. The D is for Darwin. An online gazetteer from New Hampshire in the 1860s reveals there were at least three other men in Manchester with the first name Darwin. He was on record as a daguerreotypist in the late 1850s and the furniture and upholstery store was still in business twenty years later. During those years Simons was elected to various committees and boards of trade. You think he did alright for himself. So too his subject in this study; he looks into the camera with a practised gaze. He has also done alright for himself in business.

So far the portraits show people apparently in the best of health - which seems remarkable when you read about the number of diseases wafting about the industrialised landscape - but that was thanks more to the skill of the retouchers than any lifestyle choice. Scars, wrinkles, moles and other appurtenances tended to vanish before the client received the mounted portrait. This woman has a face that appears unravaged by either experience or illness yet is afflicted nevertheless. In the late 1860s neurasthenia was diagnosed as a peculiarly American disease and specific to women. Its usual symptoms were fatigue, apathy and social withdrawal but so was any odd behaviour not covered in the textbooks. Cures ranged from enforced rest to induced orgasms, and that was before doctors began toying with electricity. If her family had money, this woman’s shadowed eyes would have marked her out as a neurasthenic. If they didn’t, her eyes were probably taken as clues to loose morals.

Randall of Detroit was the photographer but who was his subject? The beard required cultivation and regular grooming and you couldn’t really afford one like it unless you occupied a respectable position in the city. He looks self possessed and aloof, as you would if you’d inherited the family business or made your way through Harvard Law School and couldn’t see why anyone would settle for less, but that’s unfair. We really know nothing about him. Stockholder or stationmaster on the Underground Railroad, Know Nothing, Northern Republican, Southern Democrat or none of the above; someone with a practiced eye for discerning the codes of dress and appearance during the war could probably identify his background, politics and his profession. The rest of us are left with guesswork. It’s a rather excellent photograph, so finely produced it could have been done in inks.

Speaking of faces that belong to a certain time, there is something vivid and modern about this woman yet her expression immediately suggests the 19th century school teacher. The pleasure in these vignettes lies in not knowing anything about the people; having no more clues than the face to go on and nothing at all biographical. The internet has made it possible to sit in another country and construct skeletal biographies from birth, marriage and death registries, but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If we knew her name and read that she lost a husband or a son in the war we’d be tempted to see tragedy when at the time she sat for the portrait it may not have happened yet. On the one hand you are curious, on the other it’s refreshing to realize she will remain a mystery. It’s a paradox really. These portraits are the most tangible proof we have these people were alive but anything they tell us depends entirely on our imaginations.


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