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19th century photography Essay

Discuss how 19th century photography was utilised to construct notions of social and cultural identity. Examine at least one image from the 19th century as well as at least one example of a contemporary portrait that has a resonance with these earlier practices.

Photography’s influence on modern day is so vast that it is practically impossible to imagine a world without such technology. Due to the great deal of photography surrounding us, we have gradually become accustomed to the impact photography has on our social and cultural identity, that we no longer notice just how much it affects us and the world. If we take a look back to the creation of photography in the 19th century, we are able to understand its deep effect upon the social zeitgeist and how it constructed notions of social and cultural identity. We can successfully examine exactly how society reacted to the debut of photography, as each of its practical uses that were inaccessible beforehand; both scientifically and socially, were being uncovered.

The announcement of photography in 1839 evoked the desire to apply the new medium to the portrait. Andre Disderi popularized and patented the process of The Carte de Visite – a type of photograph which unlike earlier photography, was small, cheap and easily distributed. The use of the carte spread across France, Europe and America. The idea of celebrity, beauty and fame blossomed and theatre performers ‘flocked to the studios to have their portraits taken as lasting memento’s of transitory performances.’ (Hamilton and Hargreaves 2001, p. 45-6) Eventually cartes became commercially available and the creation of family photographic albums began, later to “be handed down through the generations.” (Hamilton and Hargreaves 2001, p. 46) Sitters would order from a dozen up to a hundred copies of a print to trade them with friends and family. In the 1870s, cartes were replaced with the success of cabinet cards, eventually leading to the immense popularity of the Kodak Box Brownie, sparking the mass phenomenon of home snapshot photography that still exists today. (Tom and Marnie Hill 2011)

For the first time, the middle class was provided with a means of remembering and cherishing dead loved ones with a keepsake photograph of them post death. Post mortem photography was most common with infants and young children due to the high childhood mortality rates. The post mortem photograph may be the only image of the child the family ever had. (Hamilton and Hargreaves 2001) Postmortem photography increased the emotional investment people were making in their loved ones. Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to a friend “I would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved, than the noblest Artists’ work ever produced.” (Henisch and Henisch 1994, p. 166)

Unknown photographers (The Seventh Sense, 2004)
In both images, the woman in the middle is dead, propped up by their loved ones.

Prior to photography, “diagrams could help to inform, maps to chart, drawings and paintings to recognize,” (Hamilton and Hargreaves 2001, p. 57) but none of these could be used as legitimate evidence. Photography’s ability to produce illustrative information and evidential knowledge far better than “the best artist could deliver” (Hamilton and Hargreaves 2001, p. 61) was quickly realized, creating a roaring up rise in the success of science. In 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot wrote that photography would be highly beneficial towards the inductive methods of modern science allowing the capture of chance natural events, which might then be followed up with experiments. (Hamilton and Hargreaves 2001)

The 19th century was a period where methods of observing the social world were appearing, particularly in mathematics and statistics. Human normality and abnormality rates were often recorded and presented as a chart or graph. It was believed that majority of society tended to behave in similar ways, so it was clearly evident when a significant minority exhibited signs of abnormality, as they would diverge considerably away from the mean, or the ‘normal.’ (Hamilton and Hargreaves 2001) A link between the statistics and photography was soon discovered and photographs began being used to depict the uniformity of the normal and the diversity of the abnormal. The photography provided exact depictions, and was more specific and detailed than a graph could ever be, which eliminated possible mistakes from being made. This abolished any unnecessary, accidental scrutiny or control over people whose health or behavior were considered a threat to the development of society. From this, photography was proved to provide truth, which ultimately ended written records.

Dr Hugh Welch Diamond, a leading figure in the new treatment centered psychiatry, began a project that used photography as part of the treatment process. Diamond wanted to discover the nature of his patients’ character so he created portraits of them to study their facial features. Diamond then showed the portraits to his patients in attempts to help them understand they are ill. Although little evidence showed success in his therapeutic use of photography, Diamond is remembered for popularizing the medium of photography and lessening its mystique. He was one of the first to appreciate the concept of photography as a means of communication, understanding that a picture speaks for itself if you listen to the “telling language of nature.” (Hamilton and Hargreaves 2001, p. 81)

Duchenne de Boulogne was a physician, who began to experiment with electrical currents to force upon neural action in his patients, believing this would help him understand the wiring of human bodies and consequently find a cure for his patients. (Darwin & Ekman 1998, p.404-5) Duchenne published a series of photographs exploring facial expressions in his book ‘The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression.’ His images were groundbreaking for science because of the validity of the experiment by the use of photographs.

Duchenne “initiated himself into the art of photography” (Duchenne de Boulogne 1990, p. 39) because it was “only photography [which could render the subjects’ expressions] as truthful as a mirror, attaining such desirable perfection.” (Duchenne de Boulogne 1990, p. 36) Although Duchenne wasn’t the first to use photography in terms of medicine, he was the first modern doctor who worked conceptually. He thoroughly understood the principles of perspective and light, which lead to successful images similar to art photography. From Duchenne’s research he concluded that the language of facial expression was a Mechanism and that the “reason behind the lines wrinkles and folds of the moving face” (Duchenne de Boulogne 1990, pg. 1) was triggered by our inner emotions and our soul.

Many of the plates published in Duchenne’s book were of one particular patient, an “old toothless man, with a thin face, whose features, without being absolutely ugly, approached ordinary triviality.” (Darwin & Ekman 1998, p. 405) The man suffered from palsy, paralyzing his face making him resistant to any pain. Using electrical devices, Duchenne could spark fake emotions in his patient allowing him to create studies on human expression. Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne, Untitled, 1862 (Hamilton and Hargreaves 2001, fig 49)

Duchenne’s research had importance in not only medicine and photography, but also in the study of human evolution. Charles Darwin, a British naturalist owned copies of Duchenne’s work and was particularly interested in it because it supported and provided suitable visual evidence to his universalistic ideas and theories about human evolution. Darwin believed that “some expressions, such as bristling of the hair under the influence of extreme terror, or the uncovering of the teeth under that of furious rage, can hardly be understood except on the belief that man once existed in a much lower animal-like condition’ (Darwin 1872, p19.) Duchenne’s work was published in Darwins book, “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals”, which ‘played a major role in bringing photographic evidence into the scientific world.’ (Prodger 1999, p. 401)

Photography’s ability to provide traces of real events secured its role within almost all areas of science. The medium became a very important tool in anthropological research where human builds, features, skin colours, skull sizes and faces were studied, grouping certain people together due to their similarities enabling classifications, comparisons and contrasts to be made.

J. T Zealy took images of black slaves to document the characteristics of the African race. The photographs were taken to support the theory of Polygenisis, aiming to convince white viewers that the continuation of slavery should be supported because the African body was so different and alienated that they must be a separate species. (Barger M.S, White W.B, 1991)

J.T. Zealy. Renty, Congo, on Plantation of BF Taylor, Columbia, SC. 1850 (US Slaves, 2011)

Darwins research ‘showed in considerable details that all the chief expressions exhibited by man are the same throughout the world” (Darwin 1872, p. 335) which exiled some of the racism emerging at the time, confirming that white races don’t possess any superiority over the other races.

In 1882, questions about social groups and classes began to arise. Photography was used to categorize the types of people within a single race, by studying their ‘tendencies and proclivities’. (Ryan 1997, p.168) These photographs of identification allowed the development of a much more humane method of apprehending criminals, controlling prisoners, treating the insane, and limiting the spread of crime, poverty and disease. This linked to the study of criminology where photography was used as a means to recognize repeat offenders and to catalogue police records.

Alphonse Bertillon standardized the criminal mug shot by creating the first system of physical measurements, photography and record-keeping that police could use to identify reoffending criminals. The police adopted his anthropometric system and called it the bertillonage stystem. (Visible Proofs 2006, para. 2) Bertillon also took an interest in genes, and how physical and mental characteristics were passed on hereditarily. He created a series of his own family according to the accepted bertillonage system as part of his research. (Hamilton and Hargreaves 2001)

Alphonse Bertillon, Francois Bertillon age 23 months, 1893 (left) Alphonse Bertillon, Alphonse Bertillon, 1891 (right)
(Hamilton and Hargreaves 2001, fig 56 & 62.)

Photography proved to be of huge success in the field of science, but other uses for the medium were also discovered.

Contemporary Australian photographer Simon Obarzanek has a resonance with 19th century anthropologic and criminology practices in the way that his subjects are being treated as studied specimens. He has no interest in the character traits of the subjects he shoots; he is only interested in their physical attributes. Obarzanek uses the same method of observing, exploring and recording the human being as anthropologists once did. Obarzaneks’ ‘80 faces’ is a series of black and white mug shot portraits of teenagers’ aged 14-17. He focuses on the face at its most basic shape, scale and proportion of features. The portraits are always presented in groups engaging spectators to compare and contrast the faces. Although the photos are quite ordinary and general on their own, once put all together as a group, each person becomes an individual. (Mutual Art 2012, article 1)

Simon Obarzanek, Untitled (80 faces) (1-6), 2002 (Karen Woodburd Gallery, 2012)
Simon Obarzanek, Untitled (80 faces) (19-24), 2002 (Karen Woodburd Gallery, 2012)

Again, Obarzanek portrays this sense of categorization resonant to 19th century anthropology in his series 10pm-1am. He records anonymous females at the times of 10pm-1am and as spectators we are engaged to study the subjects, creating our own ideas of their personality and habits.

Simon Obarzanek, 10pm – 1am No.2,No.7, No.6, 2007 (Karen Woodburd Gallery, 2012)

Similarly, contemporary German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher created black and white photographic typologies of industrial structures, fascinated by the similar shapes in which certain buildings were designed. The Bechers would travel to large mines and steels mills and photograph the major structures from the front, making them appear as simple diagrams. When displayed, images of structures with similar functions are displayed next to each other, inviting viewers to compare their forms and designs. A supporting photograph of the overall landscape was also displayed to give the structures context. (Moma 2012, article 1) Although the Bechers’ didn’t create portraits of humans like 19th century anthropology, their work is very much the same thing. The photographs still study the features of the subject and put them in categories.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Winding Towers, Germany 1971-1991 (Moma 2012)

Prior to the introduction of photography in 1839, society had never encountered anything quite like it. Once the medium was introduced to the world, it appeared to be useful in countless aspects of life; as a tool for evidence, identification and recording and is still used today for many of the same reasons. It was inevitable that the medium would create notions of social and cultural identity during the 19th century due to its groundbreaking effects in science, art and social living. Photography has come a long way since its invention and has made significant improvement making the medium a worldwide phenomena.


Barger M.S, & White W.B, The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth-Century Technology and modern Science, Smithsonian Institution, 1991 Darwin, C, 1872, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Fontana Press, London Darwin, C, & Ekman, P 1998, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, With Introduction, Afterword and Commentarries by Ekman, P. 3rd edn. Oxford university Press, New York Duchenne, G-B, 1990, The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression, Cambridge University Press, USA Hamilton, P & Hargreaves, R, 2001, The Beautiful and the Damned, Lund Humphries in association with The National Portrait Gallery, London. Henisch, Heinz K. & Henisch, Bridget A., 1994, The Photographic Experience 1839-1914, Pennsylvania: Penn State Press Hill, M & Hill, T, 2011 Wyandot County (Images of America), Arcadia Publishing Proger, P, “Photography and the expressions of the emotions.” Appendix III, p399-410, in Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872, with introduction, afterward and commentaries by Paul Ekman, London: Fontana Press Ryan, J
R, 1997l Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualisation of the British Empire, Reaktion Books, London

Karen Woodbury Gallery 2012, 80 faces, 10pm-1am, photographs, viewed 20 May 2012, < http://www.kwgallery.com/artist/simon-obarzanek/10pm-.-1am-no.6/21/291> Moma 2012, Exhibitions, viewed on 12 May 2012,

Mutual Art 2012, Obarzanek, Simon, 80 Faces, MutualArt Services Inc., viewed on 12 May 2012 Seventh Sense, The, 2004, Unknown photographers, Photograph, viewed 12 May 2012, < http://ken_ashford.typepad.com/blog/2009/08/more-post-mortem-photography.html>. US Slaves 2011, Delia, American born, daughter of Renty, Congo & Renty, Congo, on Plantation of BF Taylor, Columbia, SC., photograph, viewed 11 May 2012, < http://usslave.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/slave-daguerreotypes-for-louis-aggassiz.html>. Visible Proofs 2006, Forensic Views of the Body, Alphonse Bertillon, US National Library of Medicine, viewed on 12 May 2012,

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