Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Smile for the Camera

The snapping of the camera shutter is all too familiar during the holiday season as families in their Sunday best cheerfully pose for portraits and children “cheeeeeezzz” for Grandma unwillingly.

Historically, portraiture was reserved for aristocracy, painted on canvas, and documented the sitter’s nobility. Ordinary middle class peoples looked upon portraiture as an extravagant expression of superiority. As democracy rose and middle class demanded bourgeois luxuries, artists responded with miniature portraits and silhouettes. However, those archetypal substitutions could not survive the invention of the Daguerreotype in the mid 19th century. The Daguerreotype (the first successful commercial photographic process) made portraiture affordable, although at first only afforded by the well-to-do.

Today, photographs capture sentimental moments like fleeting memories, but photography wasn’t always so candid.  Before the camera became a commodity and Uncle Joe could snap the family portrait in half a second, having your photograph made was luxury and privilege. The photographer’s studio was a fixed business establishment and a scheduled appointment was a must. However, the realization of cameras with built in processing freed the photographer from his studio by mid 19th century.

Portraits then came in all sizes, from small pocket sized to lockets and mantle wedding portraits. Street photographers solicited on boardwalks by the beach, cameras were toted to picnics, and even the Civil War. Portrait enthusiasm also developed into sentimental jewelry with the invention of the photo button camera in 1910.

A curious type of photo found in our collections is not a wearable button, but instead a six inch button plaque stamped Chicago Portrait Company on the back. Founded in Chicago about 1893, this innovative portrait company took full advantage of street photography. They sent out photographers (really salesmen then called “drummers”) to travel the country and take portrait photos. The film was then mailed to headquarters, printed, mounted and mailed back to the customer.

The button plaque was a popular alternative to the traditional framed portrait. Not only was it small and portable (important for a booming mining town where space was a disappearing commodity), but it was also affordable because of its tintype photo process, the faster cheaper way to produce a print.

We haven’t identified the woman in the portrait, but can trace the artifact to the McPhee estate in Telluride. Their lineage is a mystery other than John McPhee who published a local newspaper covering Norwood, Nuclea, and Telluride news.

~ Cameo Hoyle
Exhibits Manager
Telluride Historical Museum