Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Victorian Photographer: Tricks of the Trade

by Grace Elliot

My most recent bedtime reading is Henry Mayhew’s fascinating book London Labour and London Poor. First published in bound volumes between 1851-2, it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of ordinary Victorians trying to scratch out a living. Mayhew's huge achievement is to create a written ‘snapshot’ of lives that would otherwise have been forgotten in the mists of time. I chose the word ‘snapshot’ deliberately, because the character that most recently caught my attention is the ‘Victorian photographer’. His name isn’t given, so let’s call him Mr. Snap.

Catherine Draper - 1839
One of the earliest known photographic portraits

This photographer tells with astonishing frankness of the antics and dodges Mr. Snap got up to.  Put simply, the man may not have been a good photographer, but he was certainly a talented salesman and had the gift of the gab. But let the man speak in his own words (as recorded by Mr Mayhew).

“I had a customer before I had even tried it [the camera] and so I tried it on him and give him a black picture (for I didn’t know how to make a portrait and it was all black when I took the glass out) and told him it would come bright as it dried. He went away happy delighted as anything.”


It seems the first weekend Mr. Snap opened his premises, he did a brisk trade taking “spotted and black” photographs for equally delighted customers. His tactic was to learn his trade on the job and seize trade while it was there. When he did a poor job the customer returned to complain, he simply took another portrait – which sometimes turned out better – “they had middling pictures for I picked it up quick.”

One customer posed smoking his pipe, not once, not twice, but three times – to be sent away each time with a black plate. Eventually the photographer’s will prevailed and the sitter appreciated that: “It’s the best he ever had took, for it don’t fade and will  stop black to the end of the world, though he remarks in that I deceived him in one thing, that it didn’t brighten.”

Frederick Langenheim -circa 1849
Note the hair: Highlights have been scratched out of the emulsion with a pin

Mr. Snap remains frank about why his portraiture was so poor. He reveals that when he bought the camera, the salesman showed how to use the device by taking his portrait and exposing the plate for 90 seconds. Our photographer friend then proceeded to take all subsequent pictures at an exposure of 90 seconds, regardless of whether it was bright sunlight or dusk. When, eventually, Mr. Snap realised his mistake (and it sounds as though this took a while), he at last referred to the instruction book (!)  and afterwards could take “a very tidy picture”.

Taking halfway decent photographs was good for trade, and the following spring he was taking upwards of 60 portraits a day! The photographer bemoaned that he lived in a religious neighbourhood and was therefore forced to close on a Sunday. Apparently the Sabbath was the best day for trade, because people had been paid the day before and had wages burning a hole in the workers' pockets.

The photographer was ingenious enough to maximise his profits with ‘add-on’ products. He invented the ‘American air-saver’, the purpose of which was to stop the photograph from fading. In actuality it was a piece of paper coated in varnish and applied to the back of the photograph. Trading on people’s gullibility, the air-saver was an instant success – although he did see a fall in sales when he renamed it a ‘London air-saver’, and swiftly reverted to the original name.

A photographer's studio in 1893.
Note the clamp to keep the subject's head steady during a long exposure

Another dodge was ‘brightening solution’, which it probably won’t surprise you to learn was water. The self-proclaimed ‘dodge’ was, when a client complained the picture was too dark,


“Why this isn’t like me there’s no picture at all” Then Jim says “It will be better as it dries and comes to your natural complexion.” If she grumbles, he offers to pass it through a brightening solution, which involves an extra fee.


With due deference the photographer passed the paper through water and then rolled it up, with instructions not to unroll until completely dry. If the client returned later to complain, he simply retook the picture and got yet more money out of them on the pretext of using superior chemicals.

And finally, taking and processing a photograph took time, but for those in a hurry, Mr. Snap had the answer. He simply took a photograph and then gave the sitter a picture he’d taken earlier. Frequently the dark and blurry image was so indistinct that the sitter didn’t realise the portrait was of someone else, and went away happy. This rouse failed once – when he gave an old woman a likeness featuring a man with a beard…


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Grace Elliot is a veterinarian, freelance writer, and author of historical romance. Her latest release, The Ringmaster's Daughter is a story of a determined young woman trying to survive in male dominated Georgian England.

1 comment:

  1. This was an enjoyable post. What a rascal that fellow was! And how gullible his customers. It's amazing that they fell for his explanations.

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