Sunday, December 1, 2013

Wedding Portraits & Photographic Science

Naples, MNA.  Pompeii.  Man and wife, from a wall of their house.  The date is Julio-Claudian by her hairstyle.  She, again, as a poetess, he as (what else?) an orator (the idea is, someone educated to serve in public life of the town).  This famous portrait is in a style that might be called a colored drawing rather than a painting, a style which you might compare with the "dry", hard-edged sculptural styles as distinct from the plastic, coloristic styles.
Probably at their wedding 23 December 1920: Cliff and Inez Lawrence Lehman, Audine Lawrence, and (probably) Gilbert Lehman, Cliff's elder brother.

F.L.Lawrence & Mary Ferguson, Wedding Portrait, early 1890s

What Constitutes the "Traditional Wedding Portrait"

The major distinction is whether the families have one made, or not.  The probabilites of preservation from antiquity make their scarcity understandable, and funerary images are vastly more numerous.  We must remember, too, that the garments for brides differ with the ceremonies and symbolism of cultures.  For example, we know from the funerary statue of Phrasikleia (Boardman, Archaic, p. 73, pl. 108a) whose inscription tells us that she will remain a maid rather than a bride and who is dressed in red with a bridal crown, that the red bridal gown, attested to in Lain literature, is far older, since Prasikleia died in the middle of the 6th century BC.  White, I fancy, was associated with death, instead.  Besides, like the other kore statues elaborately dressed, carved in marble by named sculptors like Aristion of Paros, such statues were for the wealthy.
Usually marriage portraits are pretentious in some way or another, and that feeling is expressed in formality.  Piero della Francesca's of the noble Gonzagas are pure profile busts, which recall medallions  and cameos.  Man and Wife paper silhouettes also recall cameos.  Gilt glass, from the Late Empire, is as likely to be frontal.  Also frontal are the Late Republican and Early Empire funerary portraits.  What we don't get, even in the Renaissance, is the equivalent to the bride feeding her husband a piece of the wedding cake. 
A search to locate family wedding pictures, without locating the photographs that the younger generation expected to find, led me to think and to conclude tentatively that the first three quarters of the last, the 20th, century were the height of the Brides' Magazine "traditional" wedding.  What I'm going to suggest is tentative, because (still in its days of early scholarship) the internet seems not to address the subject properly.  What you do find is entrepreneurship: the availability of newly made, modern but jewel-like daguerreotypes, which may well promise that the marriage is consecrated also by uniqueness, by the precious copper and silver (forget the poisonous mercury vapor), by the hint of old-fashioned fidelity (not that such was always the case: indeed, my paternal grandparents, above, separated after their six children grew up). 
Yet the frontal, "iconic", basically more primitive representation of an important human, seen solemnly, is unlikely to have been the principal reason, I think, for the 20th-century parlor presentation of the new man and wife; even in antiquity for the Pompeiian couple (and the house may have belonged to a baker) the primitive preference for the mug shot may be more important.  A child draws a front view before any other, and religions use eikones, icons, flat and frontal and remote, to differentiate exalted personages from ordinary, friendly, familiar images.  But by the 19th century, sophisticated, moving, modeled, active figures prevail in pictures.  Newly wed couples by painters like Vigee Le Brun and Gainsborough, and their paintings of their own children, are usually shown as very much alive.  Even early American anonymous itinerant painters generally prefer a three-quarter view (though these do not generally paint couples in the same frame).

I considered:
  • In North America, as in Australia and South America, scattered and varied imigrants and professions wanted to define themselves.
  • The highly portable daguerreotype technology spread like wildfire after Daguerre introduced it in 1839, and in cities they were often delicately tinted.  Elsewhere, everywhere, quarter-size plates were pedalled; that is why the Library of Congress and the US Archives as well as the Smithsonian Institution and libraries everywhere have so many.  Their variety is wonderful (and the detail is breathtaking—folks like detail).  Wedding portraits are only one kind of daguerreotype portrait, but they are among the most frontal.
  • Collodion emulsion, whether processed on glass for the ambrotype or on tin for the tintype (and many family treasures are ambrotypes and tintypes), which are positive images, or on glass (replacing sensitized paper) for negatives to make prints, albumen on paper, rapidly replaced the daguerreotype in the 1850s.
  • Gelatin silver whether on glass or celluloid for negatives and whether printed in gelatin silver or albumen on paper quickly replaced collodion from the 1880s onward.
(The foregoing is much abbreviated and does not describe what has no bearing on this Essay.  See some of the many basic books on the history of photography, such as Naomi Rosenblum's, or the very good Handbook from the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1995; these are just the first two that come to mind, and the Getty collection is too wonderful to be typical.  For the typical, just Search the Wikipedia).

I gathered from every search and images site on line that while people did put on their best clothes to be married, just as we usually do to go to Reno (add a corsage, a little hat with a small veil or a shoulder-length veil), that in earlier photography:
  • Only a wealthy garden wedding, providing sunlight (and I think of a somewhat bohemian couple) would have a portrait of the couple being married or just married, and it would be done with calotype (salt print) or daguerreotype.  No minister of any church would countenance the very long exposures, even if the subjects could hold the poses.  The newlyweds would have to go to a studio with a skylight and usually have their heads fixed (examples of the braces exist). 
  • The traditional white wedding dress and dinner suit for the groom, i.e., formal wear, came in only gradually, and only in large towns and cities, and in England earlier than in the USA.  The idea of a wedding photo seems clearly to have been set by those who could afford the clothes AND to have afforded the man from the main-street studio unless access to a well known photographer also made the girl a debutante or qualified to be presented to at a coming-out ball.   Photography was too expensive a hobby until Kodak, et al., came along and then its output was not fit for the rotogravure.  Similarly, flash equipment of the 19th century (and even into the 20th) was grossly unsuitable for a chapel.  Emulsions as fast as ISO 80 were tops, and only expensive cameras had shutters as high as 1/100 sec.  The wedding pictures of my youth, printed in the papers and magazines, were taken at the receptions, and I was thinking that couples who had no receptions may have had no photographs (unless a member of the party or of the family was a member of the local camera club).
  • Even as late as 1891 (I think it was), my paternal grandparents, above, had hardly formal clothes, were standing stiff in a photo studio with a paper backdrop.  Also, it is possible that the photo is a collodion negative and printed on albumen paper (in northern Arkansas, the technology might not be of the latest).
  • The newspaper's society pages' photographs of weddings that I remember from the middle decades of the last century are conventional and commercial, except for the very finest ones, and even well-to-do people, if they were conventional in their ideas, might want to make sure they had the "right kind" of images, even when the best photographer in town was, as their friend, taking far superior ones free of charge.
Now, as everyone knows, having been told, in the 1960s (really, in the late 1960s) young people and Hollywood people and liberated people began to want to create their own rites and choose their own natural places (the beaches and state parks, for example), and novel wedding clothes (or even swimming nude if water enough were available)—or of course being married at a political demonstration, often with the most high-minded intentions.  Well, they did; I remember.  But also everyone knows that there was grass-roots backlash, and the vast majority of duly engaged and announced and church-married couples still had the same kinds of wedding portraits, too.  Some of you may remember "Auntie Mame" and Gloria and her parents; Gloria to be married had to do it all comme il faut.  Also, though, the children of teachers and grocers and factory-workers continued to think of and plan their weddings as their mothers had done.  Right now, in fact, families can and do choose just what they fancy.  At the head of this essay, I mentioned the entrepreneurs who offer real, genuine dauguerreotypes to make their marriages as Victorian as can be.
Most Americans I now realize adhere to the religion of their choice and go to church fairly regularly.  Even a Reniassance Fair is a good site for a wedding, but so is the church in one's neighborhood or the big one with acres of parking lot.  My parents' generation were married by the minister who in due course would christen me and my siblings.  I am thinking of the very people who live in the same kinds of downtown bungalows or suburban post-war houses that I am most familiar with.  Those who are most apt to take pictures are those who marry at a party Fair or at home, but they take their own images.  There are hardly any society pages for wedding pictures in the surviving daily paper.  
But I think there may be more to this: hardly any of my nieces and nephews had formal weddings, let alone commercial wedding pictures.  I have to ask, how many lower-middle income, or even professional (sons and daughters of doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers), have been having the sort of wedding that entails a catered reception, a commercial photographer, and the rest?

As for that Wedding Photograph, the one you set on your piano or your mantelpiece, is it not something that flowered along with the middle-class aspiration to the upper-class formal wedding and the debutante ball?  Isn't it the quinceañero, still done by Hispanic families, the other Catholic rites of passage, the bar mitzvah, especially where there are solid enough communities to support it, that survive?  And, in that case, wasn't it that touching American quest for identity that fostered the Bridal Industry?

Isn't that why we had a huge, commercial wedding picture industry, sustaining the commercial photo studio and producing a very limited and conventional kind of image?  Now there are no photo studios downtown or in the malls.  I think that we no longer have such an industry, but instead we take and post thousands of images of our own.  Some of them are wonderful, and we ought to take care to keep them.

As it is, I don't know whether the one I share here is or is not the only one in our family.  It may be.  Because I may be too late, practically everyone older than me (and that includes all our amateur photographers) is dead, and if thousands of prints turn up in Salvation Army stores, they are someone's family history.  But I never have seen formal white bride, formal groom pictures of ours.

Or have I?  I have added, above the photo of my Lawrence grandparents, one I recalled from the wedding of my father's eldest sister, Inez.  And they are family or friend shots.  And very Californian, evidently from an orange orchard.


P.S.  If you are really interested in the technology of photography, and if you can find the book, go to William Crawford, "The Keepers of Light", Morgan & Morgan, Woods Ferry, 1979.  The best source for doing everything from scratch remains the Eleventh Edition, 1910, of the Encyclopedia Britannica. s.v. Photography.  Though the Wikipedia used this, it used only a small fraction of it and left out most of the solid science.