Studio to Selfie

Photography, Identity and Symbolism

Self-image has always been important to many people; to present an aura of wealth, importance and power or stylishness and fashion. 

The setting in which a portrait is taken and the symbolism within the image can tell a lot about a person’s character and how they like to be seen. For example a luxurious fabric backdrop with the sitter wearing what appears to be expensive clothing, would give an impression of wealth and luxury. 

Symbolism was very important in the Victorian period. People had to be careful what they wore on certain occasions; how they held their fan or what jewellery they wore. All these things gave out signals and impressions. A lady fanning herself too quickly could suggest she is engaged. Handkerchiefs embroidered with a dog suggested loyalty, while a frog could symbolise sin. A brooch in an ivy design symbolised friendship, but a brooch containing precious stones in a particular order could symbolise love: lapis lazuli (a blue stone), opal, vesuvianite (a green, brown, yellow or blue mineral) and emerald. Empty shoes in a photograph could symbolise death. 

Unknown policeman, Bradford
We know very little about the man in this portrait. What symbolism can you see in this picture? What do you think it means? What can it tell us about this person?

Flowers were one of the most common symbols in Victorian society and could give a number of different messages. Flowers in a portrait could symbolise an engagement or wedding (orange blossom). Daffodils represented chivalry. Daises represented innocence and purity and roses symbolised love.

For centuries gloves have been a vital accessory worn in all seasons and were considered an emblem of fidelity and loyalty. Until the mid-19th century it was customary to give gloves to guests at weddings and to mourners at funerals. Gifts of gloves could also be given to a love interest. Gloves also indicated social status. Highly decorated gloves suggested wealth, whilst for poorer people gloves would be plain and more functional. 

It was good social etiquette to remove the glove of the right hand when approaching someone of authority, as a mark of respect. A woman could show favour and affection to a man by removing a glove and offering him her hand. A portrait of a young Victorian woman wearing only one glove on her right hand, with her left hand bare, could suggest it is an engagement photograph. A clenched fist could show support for the anti-slavery movement. An open palm could suggest an invitation or welcome.