What would it take to make a photograph in 1910?
November 28, 2012 5:48 PM   Subscribe

What would it take to make a portrait photograph in 1910?

This photo is of my sort-of great-great grandmother in 1910. What would it have taken to make the photograph?

The photo is mounted on a board with a debossed photographer's mark, and my initial research turns up info on a studio in my town at the time by the same name. So assuming her parents took her to a permanent studio to have a portrait made, what was the prevailing technology of the time in terms of lighting (if any), shooting, and printing the photo? How long would she likely have had to sit for the image? Links to specific techniques/histories appreciated.

Thank you, friends.
posted by rinosaur to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Here's one aspect: PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY.
Most photographers had special chairs called “immobilizers,” which clamped the sitters’ heads in a vise hidden from the camera’s sight, to make sure their subjects held still. One victim described the ordeal, recalling that he sat “for eight minutes, with the strong sunlight shining on his face and tears trickling down his cheeks while ... the operator promenaded the room with watch in hand, calling out the time every five seconds.”
Printing methods timeline: PDF.
posted by unliteral at 6:11 PM on November 28, 2012

In a lot of old photos of children, you'll actually see the mother holding them, draped under some sort of sheet. It's really unnerving. (But that doesn't seem to be the case here.)

I took a class on old photographic techniques, but I don't remember enough of the details off-hand to give specifics right now. I might be able to find time to look through my old books/notes later, but the PDF posted by unliteral seems like a great place to start.

For identification of the technique used to take/print your photo, Graphics Atlas might help out.
posted by cellar door at 6:21 PM on November 28, 2012

By 1910, the "speed" of photographic emulsions was pretty fast. In bright light, you needed only a fraction of a second of exposure. People were taking their own Kodak snapshots by then. A portrait studio might have had electric lights, but more probably a nice skylight.
posted by Longtime Listener at 6:22 PM on November 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

The light is coming from the right (you can see because there is a gentle shadow on the left side of her face). It's large (because the light is soft, soft light=large light). So...it's probably a window to camera right. There might be some fill light from a reflector of some sort (because the shadows are not very contrasty). I'm not sure what people were using for reflectors in those days. Anyway, photo studios of the time would have north facing windows because it's impossible for the sun to go directly into them. No direct sun=nice soft light. Makes for beautiful pictures. You can look up "northern light studios".

Sounds like a Carte De Visite. I sorta thought they were old school by 1910 but I'm probably wrong. They were very, very common. Any antique store probably has a stack of them.

The wikipedia article mentions that it might be an albumen print but I kinda think again that was older technology.
posted by mockpuppet at 6:56 PM on November 28, 2012

And yeah probably don't need a head imobilizer for whatever technology was used. Doesn't work very good with babies anyway.
posted by mockpuppet at 6:57 PM on November 28, 2012

Like you and others, my assumption is this is a studio portrait, using the photographer's props of chair and fur throw or rug. Not an expert (though I've picked some stuff up from someone who is), but it looks like a silver print - a silver gelatin print. 1910 is kind of a tricky time period to identify what process was used to produce the photo/print. Read the section at this site on gelatin papers. Also, look at the silver gelatin DOP prints and the gelatin POP prints at the Graphics Atlas site.

I'm thinking it may not be a carte de visite?, but it is hard to tell without seeing an image of the cardboard mount. The best way to identify a card mounted photo would be if you would provide a photo of the whole thing, the photo and the mount it is on, or at least provide the dimensions of both the print itself and the size of the card it is mounted on. If the size of the cardboard mount the photo is attached to is 2 1/2 X 4 inches then that would be a carte de visite. If the card is 6 1/2 (or 6 1/4) x 4 1/2 inches then it would be a cabinet card, etc., etc..

I'm tired after a long day at work, so that's about all I can dredge up from my memory on this stuff. Hope it helps a bit.
posted by gudrun at 8:32 PM on November 28, 2012

You might find the Afghan Box Camera Project interesting. Basically, photographic technology from a century ago is still being used in Afghanistan today although the practice is dying out.
posted by XMLicious at 11:27 PM on November 28, 2012

Aanother vote here for it being a studio portrait. There would not have been any need for an 'immobilizer' device, considering the films speeds in 1910+/-, but possibly, just possibly, there is someone holding the baby in place so she doesn't slip off the chair --- look at the way her dress sort of fluffs out over her lap: I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone (Mom?) was crouched down, hiding behind the chair, with her arm hidden by that fur and her hand at the baby's waist under her dress. As cellar door says, there are lots of old photos like that: google "hidden mother photographs".

There were also photographers who, like door-to-door salesmen, came to your house, took whatever pictures you'd wanted then came back later, at which point you'd pay and receive the finished portrait.
posted by easily confused at 12:01 PM on November 29, 2012

Thank you all for your input! With some further investigation, I found a photo of the studio, and I imagine the large window the people are peering out of would have been the light source for the photo.

I'm working on narrowing down the print process with the suggested links!
posted by rinosaur at 1:33 PM on November 29, 2012

« Older Is Bitch Magazine appropriate reading for a 13...   |   Breast reduction surgery is another option, I... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.