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Portrait Photography

portraits lincoln studios hesler

Portrait photography produces pictures that capture the personality of a subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses. A portrait picture might be artistic, or it might be clinical, as part of a medical study. Frequently, portraits are commissioned for a special occasions such as weddings or school events. Portraits can serve many purposes, from usage on a personal Web site to display in the lobby of a business.

In early photographic portraiture, the camera obscura helped artists create mirror-likenesses of their subjects. Portrait studios became more common in Europe and the United States as photographic technologies improved: The emulsions of daguerreotypes and calotypes improved with increased sensitivities and shortened exposure times.

People initially preferred the daguerreotype’s highly reflective surface, which captured more visible details when compared to the calotype’s appearance. The calotype was, however, the photographic material chosen for famous portrait series made by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in Scotland. These group portraits were initially photographed as reference guides for a large painting. Hill’s calotypes used natural poses and effective light and have been described by scholars as some of the most successful early attempts at portrait photography.

Félix Nadar was the preeminent portrait photographer in Europe for the next 20 years. His studio in Paris photographed many prominent writers, artists, and musicians of the time. By the time cartes-de-visite became popular, portraits were small enough to be added to a person’s calling card. Using standard glass negatives dropped the price of making portraits, and more people were able to purchase portraits of themselves.

The French photographer André Disdéri photographed many well-known personalities including Emperor Napoleon III. These portraits were displayed as huge editions. Disdéri is credited with popularizing the use of studio props such as pillars, draperies, and items indicative of a subject’s profession.

Portraits also served to aid political campaigns. The portrait of Lincoln reproduced here was taken on June 3, 1860, in Springfield, Illinois, by a Chicago photographer named Alexander Hesler. The sitting was arranged by the Republican National Committee. Earlier photographs—taken by Hesler in 1857—showed Lincoln as unkempt, and the committee hired Hesler to make a new portrait. The 1857 image, one of the earliest known photographs of the future president, is often referred to as the “tousle-haired” Lincoln. Since this portrait was to be used as a model for engravers to produce campaign literature, the Republicans were afraid that that the tousle-haired Lincoln would seem too rustic and uncivilized compared to opponent Stephen A. Douglas.

Celebrity portraiture was popular in the early 1900s. Edward Steichen dramatized the sculptor Rodin and the playwright George Bernard Shaw; Alvin Langdon Coburn’s portraits captured writer Henry James and poet W. B. Yeats. Many studios opened across the U.S. and advertised their services using print backing cards such as the example reproduced here.

Today, portrait photography is a huge business. Portrait studios are found virtually in every city worldwide. Sears, J.C. Penny, and many other department stories offer portrait packages with almost-real-time developing services, while high-end portrait work—which can be quite expensive—is still provided by exclusive portrait studios. Many excellent fine-art portrait photographers have become popular, including Arnold Newman, Yousuf Karsh, Richard Avedon, Philippe Halsman, Irving Penn, and Annie Leibovitz.

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