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Beyond the View: Reframing Early Commercial Seaside Photography
This exhibition provides new insights into an overlooked form of photography, revealing rich and exciting seams of imagery and offering new perspectives on representation of coastal culture and leisure. Here we gain a glimpse of commercial photographic practice from approx.1850-1900, with a visual exposition of the British seaside as represented through the refracted lens of the beach photographer. The images shown are all unique tintypes and ambrotypes, making visible for the first time an online exhibition exploring the prototype holiday snap.
The early beach photographer was itinerant and was perceived at the time as more vulgar salesman than photographer, regarded with at best indifference and frequently with contempt. The work produced by these practitioners has been readily dismissed as inartistic disposable wears – cheap seaside ephemera. More generally, such early commercial beach photographers saw their trade conflated with other low forms of seaside entertainment and showmanship. These photographers provided while-you-wait ambrotypes (photographs on glass) or ferrotypes (photographs on enamelled iron, commonly called tintypes) and this exhibition provides an opportunity to reconsider previous aesthetic, technical and cultural disregard.
In early photographic seaside portraiture we see a clear aesthetic differentiation from contemporary photography. Most notably the absence of the smile. Poses adopted are often formal and largely appear to ape the aesthetics and conventions of traditional studio portraiture. The sitters are often unsmiling and stiff – literally buttoned up. But, through close examination of these modest seaside keepsakes we begin to see a willingness to be recorded in increasingly informal poses. A documentation of leisure and pleasure – visual evidence of a happy time signified through subtle playfulness and the emergence of the smile. This exhibition chimes with the AHRC’s anniversary initiative ‘The Way We Live Now’, examining through seaside photographic research how lives have been culturally shaped and changed.
Dr Karen Shepherdson, Canterbury Christ Church University
All images in this image gallery are covered by a creative commons licence.
Family Group, Tintype, circa 1880
about Family Group, Tintype, circa 1880
This is a typical 2¾x3½” framed tintype where the specificity of the seaside is hardly signified. The sea wall is used as backdrop, which was a common device in early seaside photography. The wall provided a natural light diffuser, thus preventing over exposure in harsh sunlight. The intergenerational group of sitters are dressed formally and relationships signified by the subtle touch of the central man’s hand on the shoulder of the seated female.
Two Boys in a Goatcart, Tintype, circa 1880
about Two Boys in a Goatcart, Tintype, circa 1880
Goatcarts were popular Victorian entertainment rides for children at the seaside and these two boys typify similar images circa 1880. They do not smile, the cart is still and the sea wall offers a stark and static backdrop for the camera’s slow shutter speed. Images such as this, whilst commonly referred to as tintypes are actually ferrotypes – a direct positive image on enamelled iron.
Family Group, Ambrotype
about Family Group, Ambrotype
This is a seaside ambrotype – a glass plate positive image. Ambrotypes were from the 1880s largely superseded by the American imported tintype. It was obvious to see why, the tintype whilst in many ways inferior, was cheaper, lighter and obviously far more durable than glass. Clearly pragmatics such as cost, speed and material resilience took precedence. But both ambrotype and tintype offered instant gratification – photographs taken and finished while the Victorian client waited.
Unframed Family Group, Tintype
about Unframed Family Group, Tintype
This unframed tintype is taken at the coast, with the beach and sea wall present. To further indicate place, seaside paraphernalia of buckets, spades and bonnets are either held or laid out. Indicative of somewhat slapdash photographic practice, the fishing net pokes out absurdly from the father’s head. The image is at once formal, but made informal by the (mis)placed net and further ‘softened’ by the boy in the back row beginning to move into a half-smile.
Family Group with Photographer's Darkcart, Tintype
about Family Group with Photographer's Darkcart, Tintype
This typical family grouping interestingly includes the photographer’s own darkcart / darkbox in the upper portion of the image. This handcart held not only all the paraphernalia required to produce the photograph, but also acted vitally as a darkroom. On the side of the cart, as we see here, would be displays of previous portraits and thus such simple wooden handcarts functioned as hybridised studios, dark-boxes and galleries on wheels.
Family Group with Photographer's Diffuser, Tintype
about Family Group with Photographer's Diffuser, Tintype
This unsmiling family group show yet another of the photographer’s tools - the diffuser. This would be used to soften fierce sunlight and eradicate harsh shadows. Whilst the mother and father collectively hold the child steady, the photographer’s assistant can be seen at the edge of frame holding the improvised diffuser. Usefully for us, the photographer has unintentionally captured not only the equipment, but also the assistant’s legs and the diffuser’s clear cast.
Mother and Child on a Bathing Machine, Ambrotype
about Mother and Child on a Bathing Machine, Ambrotype
While the smile might be absent or restrained in early commercial seaside photography; tenderness is not. Surviving modest ambrotypes such as this of a mother and child on the steps of a bathing machine, counter connotations of the ambro’ and tintype as disposable shoreline amusement. Rather than cheap seaside ephemera, a revised consideration might be offered, whereby these modest portraits became important affordable keepsakes.
Three Women by a Bathing Machine, Ambrotype circa 1870
about Three Women by a Bathing Machine, Ambrotype circa 1870
If seaside photography was taken for amusement, then somewhat paradoxically the three women seen in this ambrotype (sitting directly on the sand and in front of large bathing machine cartwheels) look far from amused. This is typical. These early beach portraits show the clients repeatedly dressed in their best clothes and despite the location of production, the Victorian sitter sought a dignified representation that echoed studio portraiture.
Couple on the Sands, Ambrotype
about Couple on the Sands, Ambrotype
This ambrotype shows how norms are plastic and how these 19th century itinerant seaside images are an important material demonstration of representational shifts in portraiture. The couple, sitting closely together suggest a more relaxed presentation and in the woman we see a hint of a smile.
Father with Sons, Ambrotype
about Father with Sons, Ambrotype
This ambrotype provides a good example of how the itinerant beach photographer would frame and complete the image. Often these 19th century seaside images were presented neatly through the use of thin flexible brass matte (often elaborately stamped) and then encased in simple, yet attractive painted wooden or papier mache frames. At the cheapest end of the market, tintypes (not ambrotypes) would be slipped or glued into light card sleeves.
Large Family Group on the Sands, Tintype
about Large Family Group on the Sands, Tintype
This large family grouping provides an example of a key characteristic of the tintype image – that of lateral reversal. The image that we see is reversed in a similar way to a mirror image. This of course becomes most evident when text, as seen here in the nearby stall’s signage, is included in the final image.
Couple on the Sands, Ambrotype
about Couple on the Sands, Ambrotype
The itinerant beach photographer was the first mass-producer of plein-air portraits and very quickly introduced seaside paraphernalia as ‘props’, seen here in the clinker-built boats signifying a coastal location. The two sitters we also see typify a fashionably confident pose of the day. They verge on the defiant in their informality and intimacy, indicated by lounging together on the pebbles and the male placing his arm fully around the shoulder of the female.
Family in Bathers/Studio, Unframed Tintype
about Family in Bathers/Studio, Unframed Tintype
19th century examples of sitters wearing bathing costumes paradoxically have not been taken at the seaside, but rather at nearby portrait studios frequently situated close to the beach. This modest unframed tintype is perhaps an example of the studio bathing costume portrait at its most stark.
Couple in Bathers/Studio
about Couple in Bathers/Studio
This studio portrait of a couple in bathing costumes whilst modest nevertheless seeks a more naturalistic mise-en-scene of faux beach, rock and driftwood and is then given further depth through the tromp l’oeil seascape backdrop. The rented bathing costumes bear the name of the photographer’s studio ‘H.J.Larkins’, but as a tintype seen here in lateral reverse.