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Sitting Still

family portrait

Daguerreotype of the stiff-looking Clark sisters. Between 1840 and 1860. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

NOTICE HOW STIFF and strained these people are this photograph. I used to think that it was just really, really hard to live a life back then. In fact, when I was a kid my family took a novelty Ye Olde Photo and I convinced everyone to put on as dour a face as possible. So we could be authentic. See how angry we all look?

my family, looking pained

My family, looking pained.

It turns out the expressions were merely a result of the peculiar particulars of the photographic process. The very earliest photographs were daguerreotypes: images fixed by natural light onto individual sensitized copper plates. The exposure time for these pictures was excruciatingly long; one could sit for twenty minutes in blinding sunlight in order to get a decently bright exposure.

By the time during which Picture the Dead takes place, daguerreotypes were a thing of the not-so-distant past. Photographers were able to take glass plate negatives and print them onto albumen paper. The glass plates were far more sensitive to light than the daguerreotypes had been, and folks’ sit-perfectly-still times were shortened to a far more manageable thirty seconds (sunny weather permitting). More manageable, yes, but hardly comfortable. You try to sit completely still for a half a minute. Do you blink? Does your foot fall asleep? Do you begin to droop in your chair? Now imagine that there was some sort of metal stand clamped to the back of your neck in order to help you with the not-moving. Ugh. No wonder the portraits turned out like that.

In the following photos, look at the subjects’ feet, and you can see the bases of those neck-clamping-stands. Wuh.

girl with stand

Photograph from "Victorian Women's Fashion Photos," Dover Publications.

man with a stand

Daguerreotype of William Sidney Mount, also identified as Alfred Jones, engraver. Between 1853 and 1860. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

boy with a stand

Carte de visite of Charles H. Richards, 89th Regiment, NY. ca. 1863. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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—LB

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