Studio to Selfie

“In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.”

Roland Barthez, Camera Lucida, 1980

Portrait photography is as old as photography itself. This popular exhibition was on display throughout 2019 at Bradford Industrial Museum. Using images from Bradford Museums Photo Archive, it explored the changing nature of portrait photography and the shifting relationship between the photographer, the subject or sitter, the curator and the viewer. With the advent of the mobile phone and the internet all have merged into one.

A portrait of his father by Christopher Pratt
A portrait of his father by Christopher Pratt

In January 1839 William Henry Fox Talbot, an English inventor and scientist, announced the invention of the Talbotype photograph. Earlier the same month Louis Daguerre, a French artist, announced the invention of the Daguerrotype photograph, which he created with the French inventor Joseph Niépce. 

Fox Talbot and Daguerre introduced the world to one of the earliest forms of photography as we know it today. In January 1839 studio portrait photography was born. Portraits became more widely available but taking a photograph was a long, complicated process and quite expensive. Cameras were heavy and not very portable, so photography was restricted to a studio. 

Taking a photograph required a long exposure time. This meant that the sitter (the person being photographed) had to stay very still for a number of minutes. This could be very uncomfortable. 

“A minute went over and I felt as if I must scream, another minute and the sensation was as if my eyes were coming out of my head; a third and the back of my neck appeared to be afflicted with palsy, a fourth, and the crown, which was too large, began to slip down my forehead; a fifth, but here I utterly broke down…”

Tristram Powell From ‘Julia Margaret Cameron’ by Herself, Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry, Pallas Athene

As photographic processes and equipment improved, costs came down and portrait photography became more accessible to the average person. By the end of the Victorian period, all levels of society could have a portrait taken by a photographer. By the early 20th century cameras had reduced in size, were much more transportable and cheaper to buy. Most people could now afford their own camera and could take their own portrait photographs. 

In 1975 the first commercial digital camera was produced by an American company called Cromemco. Eastman Kodak also released their digital camera in 1975. These early digital cameras used cassette tapes to store the images. It wasn’t until 1994 that memory cards, such as Compact Flash cards and Scan Disk cards, became available for use in personal digital cameras. By the late 90’s digital cameras were widely available and cheaper to buy. 

In 2002 the first mobile phones with an inbuilt camera became publicly available and by the mid 2010s almost all ‘smartphones’ had an inbuilt camera. The age of digital photography and the selfie was upon us.