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Portraiture and Photography

Antecedents: miniature painting and silhouette

François I of France
Jean Clouet (c.1535, oil on panel)

Miniature portrait painting evolved in the Renaissance from the art of illuminating books.

Beethoven as a boy,
18th century silhouette portrait

Machine for drawing silhouettes.
From the 1792 English edition of
Johann Kasper Lavater's Essays on Physiognomy

Daguerreotype portraits

Daguerreotype of a young man
by T.H. Newcomer, Philadelphia.
Split leather case with the photographer's imprint on velvet mat.


With rapid developments in the daguerreotype's materials, equipment and technique, portraiture, formerly a privilege of the powerful and the very wealthy, gained popularity and soon developed into a large industry providing a new commodity for mass consumption.

Prestige, utility, the human passion for the mimetic, narcissistic investment and the human desire for the kind of immortality conferred by memory come together in portraiture and in photographic portraiture. Photography can be understood as both an instrument of emotional attachment and the very index of human finitude. Thanks to photography, Zeno’ s paradox of time and distance turns into a description of the existential structures of individuality, a description of the temporal condition of the human subject.

Unknown photographer. Jabez Hogg making a portrait in Richard Beard' s Studio, 1843, daguerreotype

A daguerreotype describing the relationship between photographer and sitter, both immobilized, suspended in the extended instant, during the time of the exposure. The daguerreotype camera is seen in its role of mediator at the center of the composition. The photographic act can only be represented by momentary, real in-action.

Marcelo G. Lima


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John Thomson - Street Life in London, 1877

John Thomson (1837-1921)
'Street Life in London England, 1877-8 Carbon print (woodburytype) Victoria and Albert Museum

The Photographs
In the late 1870s Thomson embarked on his most well known project, photographing the lives the people living on the streets of London.

'Street Life in London' was published in twelve instalments throughout 1877 and the beginning of 1878. Three of Thomson's photographs appeared in each edition with three stories mainly written by the journalist Adolphe Smith, who held reformist views and worked as the official interpreter for the TUC from 1886 to 1905.

With social problems gaining increased attention in the 1870s through the work of such men as Charles Dickens and the founder of homes for destitute children, Dr Barnado, these vignettes of survival among the poor proved popular with the public. The hopes and aspirations, values and needs of those portrayed were recognisable to the readers of other classes. The photographs added a gr…