I have looked at lots of nineteenth century portrait photographs, but have never paid much attention to the backdrops used by most photographers during this era. Apparently, this is a common oversight.
Photographers were given awards at exhibitions for backdrops, props and accessories. They had become so popular that they became a part of every photographer’s studio, whether purchased, painted by a professional artist, or painted by the photographer him or herself. Igantius W. Brock, also a famous portrait painter, probably painted his own, as in this portrait he made of Dr. Rubyetta Charmin Carroll.
The motif of backdrops ranged quite a bit. Some backdrops were of natural outdoor scenery, such as this formal portrait by James M. McCanless taken of Charles and Amanda Glass, circa 1897. Note the straw on the ground and the elaborate wicker settee.
Often backdrops were quite stately, giving a feeling of opulence, provided most often by the use of architectural elements such as arches and solariums. Pedestals and columns, often Greek, were common. The 1896-97 photograph by S. A. McCanless below demonstrates this classical looking background. The only oddity is that the family is posed with a rustic chair and fence. If the family were tourists, wanting to take home with them the flavor of Southern Appalachian rustic, we could make more sense of it. But the photo is of Lewis Burgin and Lily Cordelia Deaver McBrayer. McBrayer was an Asheville physician. If the backdrop was meant to denote wealth, was rustic symbolic of something as well? Why the juxtaposition of classical with rustic? Why not use a settee as in the photo above?
Here is another use of classical with rustic, a photo by Frank U. Haymond of an unidentified woman, circa 1900.
There was also the whimsical use of created backgrounds such as this photograph by Thomas H. Lindsey of an unidentified little girl posed with a fishing pole, lake and fish included, circa 1900. A mirror on the floor doubles as a small pond. The tree next to her appears to be papier-mache. A real apple, I think, sits at the toe of her boot.
If you’d like to see more portraits with backdrops, come see our photographic exhibit, Pack Memorial Library, lower level, just in front of the North Carolina Room.
Post by Zoe Rhine, Librarian