Of One Cloth

Jim Jensen

Jim Jensen, Associate Professor, Visual Arts, Loyola University, Chicago gave an excellent talk at our June 2005 meeting the economic aspects of 19th century photography, with emphasis on the portrait photographer.

Jensen's prime reference resources are the photo magazines of the period. Their articles cover the technical side while editorials and letters cover economic issues.

"Why are Photographers universally so poor"? This is the question Jensen sets out to answer.

Jim Jensen

19th century photographers can be split into three groups. At the top are the first class galleries -- innovative, technically advanced, and with the best artistic talent -- they were run by competent businessmen. At the bottom are the 'cheap Johns' of the industry -- itinerants offering low prices (and poor quality) to the ignorant and tight-fisted. Low entry barriers flooded this bottom end with incompetents and frauds.

The vast majority of the photographers occupied the middle ground -- the followers, struggling to make ends meet producing acceptable likenesses at reasonable prices. Known as 'located' photographers with their permanent addresses, they were hurt most by itinerant 'cheap Johns'. Each pivotal new process improved the photographer's productivity -- and opened the doors wider for unskilled competition.

Jim Jensen


19th century magazines

Edward Wilson's magazine "The Philadelphia Photographer" was a prime source of material since Wilson showed the most concern for the well being of photographers. Another favourite was the "St Louis Practical Photographer". The magazines usually lacked advice on the business aspects of photography. Aside from tips such as cleanliness and good record keeping, they discussed such problems as Sunday-opening issues and high insurance costs. The insurance rates reflected the view that negatives were hard to evaluate while the industry used dangerous and volatile chemicals. An example quoted involved a New York City building where rents increased six fold after a photographer took residence to cover the landlord's added insurance burden.

Portrait studios per town
Copy house receipt
Photographic rights

The wet collodion era and post Civil War growth attracted many people to the trade, exceeding the demand for offered services and prices plummeted. Ambrotypes were promoted in the cheaper studios as "Daguerreotypes on glass", while itinerants used the tintype to sell up to a dozen images for the price of a single pose. The entry price for tintype photography was especially low -- 'cheap Johns' needed only three or four days training to get started. In comparison, new located photographers spent a few months learning how to make good Ambrotypes and deal with the public. This growth in practitioners had a terrible effect on quality and profit. Mass merchandising had arrived.

Terms of payment for a sitting

Some business practices added to the woes of the located photographers: Copy houses flourished, offering low price duplicates from any print, stealing secondary income from the original photographer. Satisfaction guarantees unduly favoured the public. No prepayment and free additional sittings until satisfied pandered to unreasonable and silly demands. In Europe, photographers offered a single sitting, payable in advance as did some of the better American studios such as Platt's Galleries in Illinois. One photographer of the era sued a customer who was still not satisfied after seventeen sittings!

Satisfaction guaranteed
Upscale props

As business faded, studios resorted to better looking furnishings and props. When the carte de visite market reached saturation, new card sizes were introduced. A popular new size was the larger cabinet card (4 1/4 by 6 1/2 inches). To use it successfully, the photographer needed to improve his skills and learn retouching to improve the larger faces. The new formats were accompanied by techniques such as elaborate mats and printing on media such as porcelain. The Promenade (3 3/4 x 7 1/2 inches) was a long narrow card suitable for full-length costume portraits that demanded even more artistic skill. None of the new sizes created the sales increases experienced with the CDV and cabinet.

Promenade All
Portrait time

Price competition caused much economic pain to the located photographers. The larger studios benefited from division of labour -- supervised printing by cheap, less skilled staff; customer contact and sittings by the skilled photographers. A popular slogan and rallying cry of the day was, "Excel, not Undersell", pushing for better art to counter pressures from cheap Johns whose tintypes gave the public a feeling that all photographs should be inexpensive. 

Better Ambrotype design

Edward Wilson used pamphlets to teach photographers how to improve their artistic and business skills. He emphasized the need to avoid both "suicidal" competition and the burden of patents and licence fees, the latter being a heavy overhead. Jensen noted as an example, the patent for the "imperishable" picture which was simply the use of a double glass to protect the ordinary Ambrotype emulsion. The potassium of bromide accelerant was a more critical and expensive patent. The process was in use from the early days of the daguerreotype with exorbitant licensing fees. In the 1860s, Wilson's success at marshalling support to defeat the renewal of the patent set the stage for founding the National Photographic Association (NPA) with himself and Abraham Bogardus as the prime movers.

Famous NPA logo
Chinese solvent
Process Vendor

The NPA's push in 1872 for floor prices and certification came to naught. The floor prices were to encourage those selling below scale to raise their rates and those at scale to raise them even further. Unfortunately, a bank panic the following year killed the attempt.

Secret processes were another NPA issue. Ignorant and uninformed photographers bought such secrets. Revealed only after purchase, they were often fraudulent and worthless. In spite of the NPA's efforts, the "process vendors" continued to flourish. 

Lightning Negative Process
Cheap cabinets

In the late 1870s a heated fight over patents related to carbon prints* and chromotypes sowed the seeds for the eventual death of the NPA. Members had strong feelings both for and against the issue. The Lambert patent for the "Lightning Negative Process" shifted the focus from the patent holder chasing after unlicensed users to an alliance of users. The twist Lambert introduced was selling his process materials through a supplier, Anthony & Co., to only those with permits. At the time the NPA folded, it was rife with accusations of bad practices including the fact the executive members were always re-elected.

Price cuts at Hartley Studio

The industry shifted again in the 1870s with the introduction of the slow dry plate process eliminating the need for the photographer to make his own sensitive material. By the start of the 1880s, when the fast gelatin dry-plate came out, the wet-plate process was finally pushed off the stage. Unfortunately, the professional photographers did not foresee that the simpler dry-plate process, which was so helpful to them, would bring even more people into the business and expand the ranks of non-profit amateurs. This surge in new photographers prompted efforts by the professionals to control prices in other ways such as protecting the processes and providing instruction only to association members.

Price list from Blessing Studio
A case for fair pricing

Wilson printed a pamphlet to help photographers explain their need for higher prices, but at the 1884 convention, a brawl ensued over the price issue. Dry plate photography had shifted the industry problem from low prices to cutting prices with the high-end studios now affected. Jensen described the Baltimore Price War in which one high-end studio cut prices and within a year all had lowered their prices. There were no winners, just lower prices and lower quality.

Digital Studio

 In summary, easy entry attracted many poor practitioners; fake products and scams abounded. The prime area of business was portraiture where success meant combining business, art, and science all 'Of One Cloth'.

For further information on nineteenth century photography, have a look at "Photography in America: the formative years 1839 -- 1900" by William Welling (1978), "Images & Enterprise" by Reese Jenkins (1975), or "Photography and the American Scene" by Robert Taft (1938). While these authors do not offer the unique perspective of tonight's speaker, they do provide an overall background. Welling's book includes a guide to the "Principal Holdings of Nineteenth-Century American Photographic Journals", listing a number of American institutions with various copies on hand.  


*an extensive four part article on Chromotypes and the carbon process appears in Photographic Canadiana (Vol 30-3, -4, Vol 31-1, -2).

Capturing a likeness
Second sitting included

The illustrations under 'Images' in the right sidebar were captured from the screen with a Nikon Coolpix 990 during Jim's presentation and subsequently cleaned up in PhotoShop. Contents and images are ©2005 Jim Jensen and may not be used without his permission. The two bottom images under 'Digital Studio' show Bob Lansdale capturing Jim's portrait for use in the journal and E-Mail newsletter. Click on any small image to see it larger in a separate window.

Bob Carter

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