History of Portrait Photography

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  • 0:04 Photography History
  • 2:13 Spread of Camera Usage
  • 4:40 Digital Photography
  • 5:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Selfies are undoubtedly the most popular form of portrait photography today. However, portrait photography has a long and interesting history, full of new technology and iconic images.

Photography History

The focus of this lesson will be on portraits and self-portraits in photography. A portrait is a photograph of a person taken by another person, while a self-portrait is a picture one takes of themselves.

The invention of photography can be credited to Louis Daguerre, who first introduced the concept to the French Academy of Sciences in 1839. That same year, Robert Cornelius produced what's considered the first photographic self-portrait.

Portrait studios started springing up the next year. These early studios weren't an instant hit, as a majority of the public was still unsure of the new medium. To dissuade their fears, photographers sought to capture images of famous people, such as Abraham Lincoln and Charles Dickens. Portrait photography became a way for people to have an image of a loved one or a celebrity without having to commission an artist to paint a time-consuming portrait.

Let's now take a look at some of the reasons portrait photography began to be widely used.

1. Preserving History

In addition to portraits of famous people and family members, portrait photography became a way to preserve history. Ninety Native American delegates visited Washington D.C. in 1857 to conduct treaty and trade negotiations. While they were there, they were photographed by Samuel Cohner and Julian Vannerson.

The Civil War began in 1861, and with that came some of the first images of battle scenes and soldiers. Having a portrait of a loved one became popular so those on the home front could remember what their soldier looked like should they be killed in battle.

2. Recording Criminals

Portrait photography also assisted in criminal investigations, especially with Allan Pinkerton's National Detective Agency. Think of them as sort of the earlier, privatized version of the FBI. The agency began photographing criminals in 1870, beginning what became the largest collection of mugshots in the world.

3. Preserving the Dead

In addition to commemorating life, portraits were taken of the dead. With the high mortality rate of people, especially children, during the Victorian age due to widespread diseases, people wanted a way to remember their loved ones before they were buried. This is why, as morbid as it may seem to us now, you may have seen the myriad examples of postmortem photos taken of deceased relatives from a long time ago.

Spread of Camera Usage

Photography became more common when the Eastman Kodak Company introduced the Kodak No. 1 camera in 1888. Kodak made photography easier for everyone by doing the developing and sending the reloaded camera and developed prints back to the customer. These cameras made photography more accessible to the general public. Their 1900 Brownie Box camera was the first mass market camera. The turn of the century also embraced photography as an art form. The Smithsonian Institution began collecting and exhibiting photography in 1896, and many galleries began to follow suit, exhibiting different photographers and their works.

Let's now take a closer look at some of the development - if you'll pardon the bad photography pun - of photography in the 20th century.

1. Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession

This time period also introduced Alfred Stieglitz, one of the first people to become famous for making photography an art form. In 1902, he and a group of friends founded the Photo-Secession movement. This movement sought to make photography less commercial and more of an art form.

2. Documenting the Public

The turn of the century continued to use portrait photography for documentary uses. In 1906, Lewis Hine was hired to document the conditions that child labor workers had to deal with in different factories throughout the U.S. His photographs were used to help pass child labor reforms, like the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which banned oppressive child labor.

In 1914, the U.S. State Department began requiring photographs on all passports.

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