Family Photos: A Course Sample

Updated Friday 11th February 2005

This extract from Open University course A173 Start Writing Family History explains how old photographs can help you discover the lives of your ancestors.

Hiram and Lily Broadbent with their sons. Full credit below Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Documentary Photography Archive, GMCRO, Manchester

When photography was invented in 1839 its first major commercial application was portraiture. The camera quickly mechanised the existing trade in hand-made likenesses. Prior to photography working people bought silhouettes, the middle classes purchased miniatures, usually water-colours on ivory, and the rich commissioned their portraits in oils.

By 1839 portrait painters had evolved a sophisticated rhetoric about the role and purpose of their work and the nature of their relationship with the sitter. Early photographers adopted this same rhetoric regardless of its suitability for portraits made using a machine. Both painter and photographer agreed that the fundamental purpose of the portrait was to idealise the sitter. This need to idealise affected every aspect of the photographic portrait including expression, pose, backdrops and accessories.

 

The photo in full Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Expression The expression close up Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission
Victorian and Edwardian sitters consciously presented a formal, unsmiling expression to the camera. This was thought to project positive qualities such as calm self-control, proper self-respect, dignity and good breeding. Smiles and laughter carried connotations of levity and frivolity.

 

Pose
Pose close-up Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission
Poses, like expressions, were relatively formal and restrained. Sitters were encouraged to imitate poses that came naturally to the genteel and educated in Victorian Society. Their imitation by the less privileged was intended to suggest refinement and so assist in the idealisation process.

The way in which this family is grouped closely together in an ordered and balanced fashion conveys to the viewer an underlying sense of closeness, unity and harmony. These are, of course, ideal virtues which most families want to attain, but few achieve most of the time.

 

 
Generic film image Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

 

The photo in full Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Book Accessory
Book detail Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission
Father’s hand is resting on a book - a common accessory in studio portraiture. Its presence was intended to suggest that sitters were educated at a time when many people received little or no education.

 

 

Backdrops
Wainscoating detail Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission
Painted backdrops appeared frequently in studio portraits accompanied by their regular accessories. Two themes were particularly common: the outdoor setting with trees and balustrade which evoked the gracious parkland surrounding a large house, and the interior setting painted with wainscoting and flowing drapery and furnished with chair, table and potted plant. Both scenarios provided anonymity by divorcing sitters from the realities of their lives. They also hinted at an ideal, comfortable and prosperous lifestyle.



 

 
Generic Image Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

 

The photo in full Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Sunday Best
The photo in full Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission
Sitters usually arrived at the photographer’s studio wearing their Sunday best clothes. This suggests that they conspired with the photographer to achieve an idealised image of themselves looking their best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boys in Skirts
Boy in skirt detail Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission
Little boys wore skirts until the age of three to five years when they were dressed in their first pair of trousers. This early rite of passage was known as breeching. The newly breeched child often received pennies from relatives and neighbours. The tradition of boys wearing skirts had largely died out by the late 1920s.

 

 

Train detail Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission The toy train also helps to confirm that this is a little boy.

 

 

About this extract

This extract is taken from Open University course A173: Start Writing Family History.

The photograph used is Hiram and Lily Broadhurst with their sons, George and Arthur, 1911. The photographer is unknown.
Photo courtesy of: Documentary Photography Archive, GMCRO, Manchester. Ref: 760/31
 

 

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