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Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Victorian Photography Addendum:

After my post here a few days ago about the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, I got reading a bit of Mayhew and stumbled across a passage about a
Victorian street photographer.
I thought it would make a nice post script to the Cameron article, so I’ve reproduced it here for anyone with an interest in that kind of thing:

Henry Mayhew: A Street Photographer’s Story.

Mayhew approaches the photographic studio where a tout at the door was crying out ‘Hi! Hi! Walk inside! Walk inside! Have your correct likeness took, frame and glass complete, and only sixpence!’

"I’ve been at photographic-portrait taking since its commencement – that is to say, since they were taken cheap – two years this summer. I lodged in a room in Lambeth, and I used to take them in the back yard – a kind of garden.
I took a blanket off the bed and used to tack it on a clothes horse. My mate used to hold it, if the wind was high, whilst I took the portrait.
The reason why I took to photographing was, I thought I should like it better than busking with a banjo. I didn’t know anything about photographs then, not a mite, but I saved up my money and got a loan of three pounds, and managed to get a complete apparatus for taking pictures and opened the next day.

I never knew anything about portraits then, though they showed me when I bought the apparatus (but that was as good as nothing, for it takes months to learn). The very next day when I had the camera, I got a customer before I had even tried it out. So I tried it on him, but I didn’t know how to make the portrait, and it was all black when I took the glass out. I told him that it should come out bright as it dried, and he went away quite delighted. The first Sunday after we had opened I took one pound five shillings and sixpence, and everybody was quite pleased with their spotted and black pictures, for we still told them they would come out as they dried. But the next week they brought them back to be changed. By then I could do them better, and they had middling pictures – I picked it up very quick.
When I bought my camera at Fleming’s the owner took a portrait of me with it to show me how to use it, and as it was a dull afternoon he took 90 seconds to produce the picture. So, you see, when I went to work I thought I ought to let my pictures go the same time; and hang me if I didn’t, whether the sun was shining or not. I let my plates stop 90 seconds, and of course they used to come out overdone and quite white, and as the evening grew darker they came better. When I got a good one I was surprised, and that picture went miles to be shown about. Then I formed an idea that I’d made a miscalculation as to my time, and by referring to the sixpenny book of instructions I saw my mistake, and by the next Sunday I was very much improved, and by a month I could take a very tidy picture.

Sunday is the best day for shilling portraits; in fact, the majority is shilling ones, because then, you see, people have got their wages, and don’t mind spending. Nobody knows about men’s ways better than we do. The largest amount I’ve taken at Southwark on a Sunday is over four pounds’ worth, but then in the week days its different; some days only three or four shillings.
We are obliged to resort to all sort of dodges to make sixpenny portraits pay. I always take the portrait on a shilling size; and after they are done, I show them what they can have for a shilling, the full size, with the knees; and table and vase on it, and let them understand that for sixpence they have all the background and legs cut off. So as many take the shilling portraits as sixpenny ones.

Another of our dodges is the brightening solution, which is nothing more than aqua distilled, or pure water. When we take a portrait, Jim, my mate, takes it and finishes it up, drying it and putting it up in its frame. Then he wraps it up in a large piece of paper, so that it will take some time to unroll it, at the same time crying out to me, ‘Take sixpence from this lady, if you please.’ Sometimes she says ‘Oh, let me see it first;’ but he always answers, ‘Money first, if you please ma’am; pay for it first, and then you can do what you like with it. Here, take sixpence from this lady.’ When she sees it, if it is a black one, she’ll say, ‘Why this ain’t like me; there’s no picture at all.’ Then Jim tells her that if she likes to have it passed through the brightening solution, it comes out lighter in an hour or two.

They in general agree to have it brightened; and so then, before their face, we just dip it into some water. We then dry it off and replace it in the frame, wrap it up carefully, and tell them not to expose it to the air, and in an hour or two it will be all right. Sometimes, they brings them back the next day, and says, ‘It’s not dried out as you told us.’ And then we take another portrait and charge them more.

If the eyes in a portrait are not seen, and they complain, we take a pin and dot them; and that brings the eye out. If the hair, too, is not visible, we takes the pin again, and soon puts in a beautiful head of hair. It requires a deal of nerve to do it; but in the end they generally go off contented and happy. Once a sailor came in, and as he was in haste, I shoved onto him the picture of a carpenter who was to call in the afternoon for his portrait. The jacket was dark, but there was a white waistcoat; still I persuaded him that his blue Guernsey had come up very light, and he was so pleased that he gave us ninepence instead of sixpence. The fact is, people don’t know their own faces. Half of ‘em never looked in a glass half a dozen times in their life, and directly they see a pair of eyes and a nose, they fancy they are their own.”

Here, from the Jeremy Paxman BBC documentary series (which explores the art of the Victorians that I mentioned in my Richard Dadd post), is a video clip showing the process of Victorian photography as explained by the owner of what looks a wonderful shop. You can watch the clip on YouTube here  


  1. I have what i think may be a lamp lighters tool for lighting gas lamps