Troublesome Photography

The first ever commercially produced camera: the Giroux daguerreotype (1839)

The first ever commercially produced camera: the Giroux daguerreotype (1839)

Snippets 108. During the mid 19th Century there were a wealth of books published on the new and exciting subject of photography, but most are technical, scientific affairs, focussing on the mechanics of the art rather than the …well… art. The Handbook of the Practice and Art of Photography, by Dr Hermann Vogel (1871) is one of the earliest examples to offer some discussion of the artistic method of various styles of photography. What is abundantly clear from looking at this book is how incredibly difficult it was to achieve a good photograph, when the technology was in its infancy, as the following amusing story illustrates:

Perhaps the reader knows the pretty little picture called “A Mother’s Love.” A young mother, in modern costume, sits in an arm-chair reading; her little son approaches from behind, and, standing on a chair, embraces her. Surprised and delighted the mother drops her book and kisses the child.

A photographer took it into his head to reproduce the picture from living models. He easily found a pretty girl suitable to represent the mother. A boy, a chair, some decorations, and furniture, were not hard to procure, and the group was placed in position. The mother in effigy readily complied with the directions of the artist, and made a face which perhaps might express motherly affection. The boy, however, had different ideas. He did not feel himself drawn towards his pseudo mother, and protested energetically against any familiarity. It required a good, sound thrashing to bring him to terms. With these preliminaries time had been lost. The mother begins to feel uncomfortable in her forced position, with the head partially turned backwards, and finally the photographer “fires away.” The picture is sharp, fully exposed, without spot or blemish. The models, to their great joy, are discharged. A print is made, and what is the result? The boy embraced the mother with a face in which the thrashing is plainly visible, and with a look that seems to indicate a desire to choke her, while the mother looks much more like saying, “Charley, you are very naughty to interrupt my reading,” instead of “Dear little pet.” Can any one say that such a picture expresses the intention of the photographer? Is the above-described an expression of the title “A mother’s love?” Any one will fail to see the intention of such a picture. The whole, although a true copy of the group as placed before the camera, is, as an expression of a mother’s affection, a photographic lie.

I have not been able to track down the painting to which Vogel refers – perhaps a reader can shed some light on this.


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