In 1856, King Ferdinand of Naples forbade the practice of photography in his dominions. His subjects feared their souls were being stolen, besides which, the king had noticed he always looked better in paintings.
But most famous people were eager to have their features commemorated by the new technology, if only because it was frustrating being famous when there was no way for people to recognize you. Photographers still depended on the cooperation of their subjects, due to the long exposure times required, especially on the foggy, dimly illuminated London streets. And existing camera models were too bulky to be concealed easily. For all these reasons, the mid-Victorian preference was for staged indoor portraits. A worldwide boom in portrait studios started in 1859 when Napoleon III halted his expeditionary force outside André A. E. Disdéri's Paris studio, and demanded to be photographed on his way to help unify Italy.
The Emperor's strategic objective was to ensure that tourists could legally take photographs at every point of the Grand Tour and, sure enough, by the 1860s Naples was no longer an independent kingdom, the price of photographs was plummeting, and card mania ensued. Pictures of celebrities were bought, exhibited, and traded in their millions, yet the place of photographers in society was still unfixed.
When Giuseppe Garibaldi visited the Isle of Wight in 1864, Julia Margaret Cameron fell on her knees and implored him to sit for her, but mortifyingly, her hands were so black from the use of chemicals that he passed her by, supposing she was a beggar.
And we cannot know how many of her profession suffered the ignominy of being directed to the tradesman's entrance, or the humiliation of being cut in the street by critics who held that photography was not really High Art.
Metal clamps were often placed behind sitters' heads, out of view of the camera, to keep them from moving while the exposure was taken, which partly explains why Victorians rarely look very happy about being photographed. Women often fainted before the exposure was complete. And then there was the problem of what to tell people to do with their hands. In the American West, where social conventions were loser and metal clamps in short supply, photographers typically resorted to aiming a revolver at the sitter and threatening to blow his brains out if he moved a muscle. Some believe John Wilkes Booth was actually a paparazzo who lost patience with Abraham Lincoln's inability to stop blinking.
Other hazards were more psychological. Few were hardy enough to be fixedly stared at by Thomas Carlyle for forty-five seconds without suffering a crise de nerfs. Alfred Lord Tennyson posed for so many pictures that often in later years, forgetting he was no longer in the act of being immortalized, he would strike a melodramatic pose and stand curiously draped and staring into space. Oscar Rejlander, spying Sarah Bernhard and the Comtesse de Castiglione seated outside a café in Rome, once attempted to bring off an impromptu portrait, but due to the sun suddenly going behind some clouds, the print did not come out very clearly, and the shadowy figures had to be palmed off, after some retouching, as an allegory of Innocence and Experience.
Not until the 1870s was there the technological capacity to capture a fleeting and never-to-be-recaptured instant. This brought about new problems for the victim. Was one being blackmailed? Would the photograph that had just been taken age while one oneself remained forever young? At best, taking a snapshot of someone to whom one had not been properly introduced was hardly the mark of a gentleman, although some thought it was all right if you used a soft-focus lens. Honoré de Balzac famously compared the experience of being photographed by Nadar to that of having his pocket picked, a species of petty violation, and determined henceforth only to sit for sculptors.
Another practical difficulty was that, although there were more royal families to choose from in those days, there were also many practical jokers who went around impersonating them. For example, all surviving photos of Ludwig I of Bavaria are really of Harry Pond, a prankster from Leeds.
Capturing true royalty was dangerous because, confronted with a blinding flash accompanied by a dense crowd of acrid smoke, bodyguards were apt to take you for a bomb-hurling Anarchist. The 1872 assassination attempt on Queen Victoria may have been an attempt at a surprise portrait by an amateur whose careless handling of collodion, a notoriously flammable substance, caused first his handlebar mustaches and then his entire dark tent to go up in flames.
It was not until the 1880s that street photography became viable, with the widespread availability of mass-produced handheld cameras, and halftone reproduction that enabled reproduction of a single snapshot in multiple copies. By the end of the century, images of professional beauties in their boudoirs were slipped en masse into cigarette packets, and a society of decent young men was founded for the purpose of thrashing the cads with cameras who lurked behind bathing-machines snapping ladies as they emerged from the deep. André A. E. Disdéri, always ahead of his time, ended his career as a beach photographer in Monaco, dying virtually penniless in 1890, fatally wearied by a sheer excess of poignancy, for now that Man could hold an evanescent piece of the past in his hands, a part of him would always be wrenched backwards in time, mired in nostalgia.
The melancholy of fading sepia photographs and the sense of transience they evoked did much towards fatally undermining the nineteenth century's faith in progress and objectivity. The last straw was the invention of cinema. Finding themselves obliged to walk in a weird jerky style, the Victorians loosened up and became Edwardians.
By then, of course, it was all too late.
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