The Evolution of Portraiture

Gerry Loban

Gerry took us through a fast paced look at the evolution of portraiture once photography arrived and opened the door for the masses. Gerry has had a long term love affair with the world of portraiture owning his own studio during the 1960s and again in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he joined the nostalgia for old-fashioned portraits of a century earlier. In the course of preparing for his venture into old-time portraiture, he catalogued thousands of portraits from the 1800s to bring an authenticity to his images. 

Gerry Loban c1860

Gerry Loban c2005

The small portraits of the mid to late 1800s family portrait full body portrait head and shoulders portrait

The tribal chiefs, leaders, and nobility all wanted their likeness preserved. With the invention of photography 'taking a likeness' opened up for the common people.

young girl
Cabinet and CDV size card images

No other field influenced photography as much in the early years. Many early portrait photographers made a comfortable fortune turning out the small portraits of the day. Portraits turn up today in every major photographic process known. 

studio props of a century ago

The first studios predated electricity and gas light, resorting to natural day light to expose their very slow and cantankerous media. Many of the early portraits showed the sitter full body, the back of the mount serving as an advertisement for the photographer. Long exposures required the use of head stands and other support apparatus - often producing a stern look to the sitter. 

One of Gerry's favourites is the amateur photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, subject of a previous talk by Mr Loban. Cameron was self-taught and produced images from the mid 1860s to the mid 1870s. She favoured strong head-and-shoulders portraits with contrasty lighting in a style known today as 'Rembrandt' for its use of bright illumination on the features away for the camera. 

portraits by northern exposure

Gerry took us through a number of well known portrait photographers of the late 1800s and early 1900s pointing out the signature characteristics of their images and techniques. These ranged from the wet-plate artistry of Matthew Brady to the 1900s dry-plate 'photography as art' style popularized in Camera Work on to the Hollywood style portraits of the 1920s showing leading actors in elaborate lighting for adoring fans. 

Some of the subjects, like Georgia O'Keeffe, were photographed over decades allowing Gerry compare and contrast portraits as captured by many famous photographers including the famous Karsh of Ottawa whose images exemplify the ability of a photographer to capture the force and personality of an individual. 

Georgia O'Keeffe
Miss N by Gertrude Kasebier
Georgia O'Keeffe

by Karsh (above)

Miss N. by
Gertrude Kasebier

The procession of portrait slides was interspersed by illustrations of studio layouts and typical portrait cameras. It was interesting to see the similarity between a family grouping shot by Brady in the 1860s and a circa 1940s colour snap.

Popular illumination began with northern exposures for soft even daylight, then evolved to a mixture of natural and electrical lighting, on to totally electrical with its potential for dramatic shadows and contrasts then back to natural lighting in recent times via outdoor locations. 

Family portrait 1860s
Family portrait 1940s

Gerry used his 1960s studio experience as an example of the portrait business half a century ago. He acquired a store-front studio on the main street in London, Ontario. He recounts that capturing a pleasing expression was the key secret to success in portraiture. His subjects were young ladies, graduates, babies, and of course brides and grooms. The core of his business was the head and shoulder portrait with traditional lighting and backdrops. Portraiture was promotional in nature. Special deals and novel advertisements attracted new customers. 

young lady
graduate with drape catalogue of drapes
retouching desk

In most cases, retouching was necessary. The modeling lights used to give the subject depth and dimension emphasized shadows and blemishes. For news cuts (those photos that appear in newspapers announcing appointments), Gerry would take a few shots, select the best one, have the negative retouched, and print a 5 x 7 inch glossy for the newspaper. Since retouching was very much an art, most small studios, including Gerry's, sent their negatives to retoucher. Various props were used to add class and elegance to the portrait. For example, a selection of drapes were available for girls to wear over strapless bras,giving the illusion of elegant evening dress. 

penny a pound promotion
gerry as his own grandpaw

The American bicentennial in 1976 sparked the nostalgia for portraits in the style of a century earlier and studios sprung up specializing in such portraits down to the period backdrops and clothing. Well known local photographer Wayne Sproule, an early member of our society, was a fixture at the CNE taking "vintage likenesses". Gerry offered a similar service at the annual Markham fair using sepia-toned Polaroids and slip-on period clothing -- some made by wife Pauline. Gerry researched old books and pictures to get the correct costuming, back-drops, and poses. A rigid pose and a stern look matched the 1860s while umbrella lights and cloth filters mimicked the soft lighting of the day. 

modern ancestors
Sophia Loren

Today, the small store-front studio has come to an end (even when Gerry started out in the 1960s, store-front studios were starting to close). The business has been taken over by mass marketers like Wal-Mart and Sears using "camera operators" instead of trained professional photographers. 

Gerry wrapped up with a display of pictures by his favourite portrait photographer - Karsh and of his favourite female subject - Sophia Loren.

Well that's it for this month. If you have any questions, you can contact Gerry. The images on this page were taken with a Nikon 990 digital camera directly from the screen during the presentation and adjusted in Photoshop. Click on any small image to see it larger in a separate window. Please note this page is ©2005 by the Photographic Historical Society of Canada and may be used if the source is mentioned.

Bob Carter

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