About those portraits of the Strickland sisters
September 30, 2014
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Two days ago I posted an article about Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie and included the best pictures that I could find of each one. I was intrigued by the portraits, Susanna is stiffly posed as was normal in early photography, Catherine looks much more natural and relaxed. I concluded that Catherine’s portrait had to be a painting.
Susanna Moodie, undated Catherine Parr Strickland, undated
The first photographs were produced by Joseph Niépce in the late 1820’s. These were still life photographs as his process required an 8 hour exposure time. In the 1830’s Louis Daguerre improved the photographic process by using silver coated copper plates as film and reduced the exposure time to five minutes. By 1842 he had reduced the exposure time to a minute or less, depending on the light. These photographs were known as daguerreotypes and the process rapidly caught on around the world. In the 1850’s glass plates were introduced to produce negatives which could be used to produce multiple prints on paper.
The exposure time remained lengthy until further developments in the 20th century, requiring those being photographed to remain perfectly still. Head rests, or even clamps, were used to help and the subjects clenched their teeth to keep still. This explains why people photographed in the 19th century all tended to look rather grim.
Catherine was born in 1802 and would have been 40 in 1842 when daguerreotypes were introduced. In the portrait she appears to be much younger than that. One web site calls the portrait a photograph, but the National Archives of Canada calls it a mini portrait of Catherine Parr Strickland. Thus it dates to before her marriage and cannot be a daguerreotype. Catherine died in 1899 at the age of 97 and there are two photographs of her in her later years, both looking rather grim. Susanna was almost two years younger than Catherine and died in 1885.
The photographic ideal since that time has been to produce photos that appear to be unposed. The natural look, with a smile on the face, is what is desired. However, earlier this year I needed to have a new photo taken for my driver’s license. I was told to remove my glasses and assume a neutral expression, no smiling allowed. The photo on my driver’s license now looks almost as grim as those old 19th century photos. Taking my glasses off uncovers my bushy eyebrows which adds to the effect. The same rule applies to passport photos.