« The American Photographer of the Nineteenth Century: the Actor of a New Social Realism » – Manon Delestre

No less a historian than John Richard Green has called photography the greatest boon ever conferred on the common man in recent times. [1]

1. Louis Daguerre, Vue du Boulevard du Temple à Paris, 1838.

   Photography first emerged in France in 1839 with Isidore Niépce and Louis Daguerre. Soon afterwards, it was introduced in the United States of America. Many different artists contributed to the emergence of photography in America. Amongst them is Samuel Morse, “the artist, scientist, and inventor who did most to bring photography at once to the United States.”[2] This new medium emerged around the same period as the financial depression that started in 1837 in the United States of America. This “Panic of 1837” resulted in a wave of unemployment. With this new medium rose a new profession, that is to say, photographers. This ascending career was intriguing as it was about a completely new visual support that changed art in an irreversible manner.

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     In order to become a photographer, one would only need the equipment required, that is to say “a room with a window and the relatively inexpensive instrument of Wolcott, or ‘the cigar box and a spectacle lents’ of Draper.”[3] Alongside this new profession, photo studios set up all around the country. From that moment on, photographers had a sociological part to play in the society in the way that they created a new visual identity, whether a national or a personal identity, but they also had a major part in the circulation of information.

The photograph has this advantage: it lets nature have its way;

the botheration with the painters is that they don’t want nature to have its way.[4]

     This quote captures the first role of photography to represent as closely as possible the original subject, whether it be a landscape or a person. This new medium allows for a much closer representation of subjects, which in turn, enables the viewers to receive the message in its unaltered vision. While it is sometimes used to simply offer a visual representation of something or someone, without any particular meaning behind it, this new medium can also become a means of sort. In other words, a photograph can serve a purpose bigger than showing a sunrise because it is beautiful. It is this aspect of photograph that I will focus on in this essay, especially its use in creating an national identity, that of the United States of America during the 19th century. Before photography, American artists were trying to define an “American identity” through paintings. Indeed, as part as the Hudson River School movement, many painters dedicated themselves to painting American landscapes. When photography emerged in America, many photographers devoted their art to American landscapes as well. With his camera, the photograph defines nature in a way art never encountered in the past. The photographer assumes the role of the transitional agent between nature and its more accurate representation.

     Photographers of that time captured landscapes as a way to represent nature, but they also did portraits: the first portrait photographers were called “portrait takers.”[5] The first photo portraits are said to be American. Indeed, as R. Taft states it, “all the early claimants for the honour of having taken the first photographic portraits are Americans,”[6] but this question is at the heart of a debate.

     Photography as a new emerging medium intrigued people a lot, and the first “portrait takers” received more people who wanted to learn more about this new technology than people who wanted their portrait made, as stated by Robert Taft: “In fact, the earliest “portrait takers” were more besieged with individuals wishing to be trained in the art of portrait taking than they were with clients desiring to have their portraits made.”[7] By making portraits, the photographer would create a visual, personal identity. People would come to have their portrait made to show and affirm their identity. In this situation, the role of the photographer is actually to define and represent one’s identity on a visual matter. At that time, having your portrait made was a sign of privilege as it was a way to stand out. Photographers would make single portraits but also family portraits. In this situation, the photographer gave them a single but also a group identity. Photo albums emerged quickly. It was not actual photo albums at first, but as defined by Noah Webster it was “a book, originally blank, in which foreigners or strangers insert autographs of celebrated persons, or in which friends insert pieces as memorials for each other.”[8] It later turned into actual photo albums, displaying portraits and thus, memories.

     In addition, at that time emerged another format of photography, that is to say the cartes de visites. This concept highlighted the creation of a visual personal identity. Indeed, it contained a portrait as well as more information about the person like their name and their address for instance. Quickly, it became the major production of photographers. Little by little, these cartes de visites found their places in photo albums as well, as stated by Robert Taft: “No wonder the fashion grew –and grew. At first, the cartes de visites left by visitors were placed on a card tray; then, as the number increased, a basket was employed, but still the number grew. From the necessity, thus created, of finding a place to put the “cards,” came the family albums.” Later on, he asserts that “the introduction of the card photograph and the album effected a revolution in the photographic business.”[9]

     Soon after the emergence of photography in America, this new medium kept on evolving, bringing new technologies to the art sphere. Little by little, the photographer was not only an artist, but also a major sociological agent.

Photography helped to accomplish a new sort of realism.[10]

     Not only was the photographer a transitional agent between this new visual support and a creation of a new identity, but he was also responsible for the circulation of information. The photographer had to be as objective as possible in order to be as close to reality as possible. Photographs are supposed to express a truth, a reality. Indeed, a painting will always be more or less distant from reality and subjective as the painter expresses himself with his brush and painting. In this situation, the photographer’s role is to remain as objective as possible, in order to have a closer representation to reality.

     Photographers at that time assumed a sociological, cultural and scientific role, as they took part in the circulation of information, whether it was for the press, the literary scene, or for science. Before photography entered the American cultural scene, illustrations consisted of drawings, paintings or engravures. With the emergence of photography, illustration became more accurate, giving more information and details. It quickly became a tool in newspapers, magazines or even for commercials. For the latter option, the photograph had to photograph his subject in order to make it look attractive. In addition, photography brought more realism to the newspapers as the “illustrations” were more accurate, more in details. For instance, journalists would use shocking images in the newspaper in order to make people realise what war was like, and to warn them of shocking events, or horrors caused by the war for instance. In this situation, the photographer assumed part of the role of the journalist as through his photographs, he captured the terrible reality of the war. He reports reality and inscribe it on paper. From that moment on, the circulation of information grew wider. As stated in Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839-1889, “the means for obtaining and reproducing pictures quickly in large volume on the press, were, in 1842, totally lacking, but Ingram by infinite labor, persistence, and foresight established the Illustrated News on so firm a basis that it continues to the present day.”[11] Since Herbert Ingram founded the pictorial magazine Illustrated News in 1842, he is considered as the father of illustrated journalism. From that moment on, and little by little, the circulation of information grew wider. The emergence of photography established a major innovation in the circulation of information, as it “affected the early pictorial press in two ways: it supplied copy and it aided in the reproduction of illustration.”[12]

     At this time, photography made a major leap forward, by serving science: in astronomy, geography, medicine… The scientific use of photography acted as a major improvement in solving crimes. Indeed, with post-mortem photography and crime scene photography, it became easier to identify the persons involved in crime. Once again, the photographer acts as an identity agent, and has to be close to reality and to be accurate in his work so that it could be used in science. However, in spite of the importance of realism, photography will never expose pure and true reality: “In Worth’s phrasing, ‘it is impossible –physiologically and culturally– by the nature of our nervous system and the symbolic modes or codes we employ, to make unstructured copies of natural events,”[13] even though it will never be fully objective.

      This new medium that emerged in the United States of America in the nineteenth century brought many sociological, cultural and scientific improvement to society. The creation of a new visual identity through photography and the circulation of information and of science contributed to a progress in the American society. Indeed, as Edgar Allan Poe asserted it talking about the camera, “the instrument itself must undoubtedly be regarded as the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science.”[14]

Manon Delestre (Master 2 Anglais)

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Bibliography :

Brunet, François. “The Idea of Photography in the United States.” John Hopkins University, Humanities Center, October, 2004, hal-01378233.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Daguerreotype,” Edgar Allan Poe’s Contribution to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger. Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1943.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

Schiller, Dan. “Realism, Photography and Journalistic Objectivity in 19th –Century America.” UPenn Libraries, Vol. 4, Issue 2, Jan 1977.

Taft, Robert. Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839-1889. New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1938.

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Notes :

[1] François Brunet, “The Idea of Photography in the United States.” (John Hopkins University, Humanities Center), October, 2004, hal-01378233, p. 18.

[2] Dan Schiller, “Realism, Photography and Journalistic Objectivity in 19th –Century America.” UPenn Libraries, January, 1977, p. 89.

[3] Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839-1889. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1938), p. 39.

[4] David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), p. 281.

[5] Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839-1889 (New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1938), p. 39.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839-1889 (New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1938), p. 39.

[8] Ibid., p. 141.

[9] Ibid, p. 143.

[10] Dan Schiller. “Realism, Photography and Journalistic Objectivity in 19th –Century America.” UPenn Libraries, Vol. 4, Issue 2, Jan. 1977, p. 86.

[11] Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839-1889 (New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1938), p. 419.

[12] Ibid., p. 420.

[13] Dan Schiller. “Realism, Photography and Journalistic Objectivity in 19th –Century America.” UPenn Libraries, January, 1977, p. 98.

[14] Edgar Allan Poe, “The Daguerreotype,” Edgar Allan Poe’s Contribution to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1943), p. 20.


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