The history of photography Civil War Photographs Brady and Gardner
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History of Photography: Studio Forefathers Push Photography Forward

The collodion process in general was fairly inexpensive, which in and of itself helped propel photography forward. It also encouraged the expansion of photo studios. In 1851 there were less than a dozen portrait studios in London, but that exploded to more than 200 just 10 years later in 1861.

Noteworthy portrait maker Gaspard Félix Tournachon came to photographing portraits by way of his past as a caricature artist. He later became known by the nickname Nadar, a shortened version of “Tourne à dard” meaning “one who stings”. Apparently he had a knack for creating “stinging” caricatures and this translated into “stinging” portraits of his subjects and their personalities. Interestingly, Nadar did not carry out any of the actual photographing in his studio. He left that to his staff while he “art directed” the posing and lighting. Also of note, Nadar did not always utilize the ability of the wet plate to render perfect detail. He often played with different focal points of the lens to further create effect within his portraits. Another cool fact is that in 1861, Nadar was the first person to take wet plates up in a hot air balloon and make aerial photos!

Nadar’s portrait of French novelist, nonconformist, & feminist George Sand.

A contemporary of Nadar’s, Napoleon Sarony, a Canadian, opened a studio in NYC in 1864. Sarony was said to be quite a theatrical character so naturally, in NYC he ended up becoming a primary photographer of actors in the theater districts of NYC. Sarony was different than many of the time, pushing posing limits with longer exposures by using a posing machine to help prop his clients and adding ornate details to the scene within the photo. Like Nadar, Sarony also did not take the photograph himself, leaving the task to Benjamin Richardson, his camera man. Sarony was one of the first to attribute credit to their cameraman and he was also one of the first photographers to add a copyright notice to his photos. This is truly a turning point in photography as it’s a beginning signal as photography being taken seriously as an art form rather than just a mechanical process. Even more important, Sarony actually won a copyright lawsuit against a company who made and distributed a lithographic copy of Sarony’s portrait of Oscar Wilde. This even further cemented the legal precedent we all work so hard to protect, even today.

Sarony’s theatrical portrait of actress Sarah Bernhard as Cleopatra.

In Paris, another contemporary by the name of Antoine Samuel Adam-Solomon was bringing his background as a sculptor and painter into photography. Sculptors and painters have an innate talent/skill/knowledge of how light falls on a subject and can create and affect mood/texture/dimension. He often paid homage to “The Old Masters” of painting, posing his subject in much the same way that they painted royalty in history’s past. By virtue of his photographs appearing so “painterly” he was also pushing the idea that photography was more art than mechanical process. Solomon was also responsible for the creation of the lighting technique we all know as Rembrandt Light. He used a high side light to create a distinctly modeled face to the camera. He also was one of the first photographers to utilize retouching in his prints. At first this caused an uproar, but as we all know today, retouching is an expected and essential part of almost any photography business.

Solomon’s “Old Masters” homage/painterly quality is exemplified here.

Click to read more columns about The History of Photography.

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