The family photo album came into vogue in the 1800s, soon after photography was invented; the relatively quick process was convenient for middle class families who could not afford a painting. This isn’t to say that photography was ubiquitous; on the contrary, most folks could only afford to have one shot within their lifetimes. So unlike families today, who can easily upload thousands of images, Victorian families cherished each and every shot. It had to be perfect.
Back in the 19th Century, exposure times were about thirty seconds, meaning that if a subject moved in that time, the photograph would only capture a blur. So how did they photograph babies, whom no one could expect to sit still for so long? Well, the parents hid themselves and held them, disguised as chairs and behind drapes. Many of the photographs are unnerving because the babies don’t smile, but don’t worry! It’s likely that their deadpan visages are a result of long exposure times and easily held facial expressions rather than some eery inability to smile.
Today, these baby portraits seem ridiculous and hilarious-- even creepy! But when viewed in the context of the era, they’re really quite beautiful and heartbreaking. Because of the novelty of the medium and because of the excruciating effort and expense put into each image, these images were treasured. Photography also had a sacred weight back then because of its theoretical connection to the spirit; some scholars believed that with each shot, one’s soul got stripped away. Photography’s power was associated with death, and postmortem images were popular; they were a way of preserving life and memory.
When seen through the light of Victorian photographic theory and the high infant mortality rate, these images are startlingly warm, human, and profound. Both children and the elderly were such popular portrait subjects that some-- mostly female-- photographers exclusively photographed the very young and the very old, and sometimes they needed a little help from the relative behind the curtain.
Images via Twenty Two Words