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.

  • Image of Family Group, Tintype, circa 1880
    Family Group, Tintype, circa 1880 about Family Group, Tintype, circa 1880
  • Image of Two Boys in a Goatcart, Tintype, circa 1880
    Two Boys in a Goatcart, Tintype, circa 1880 about Two Boys in a Goatcart, Tintype, circa 1880
  • Image of Family Group, Ambrotype
    Family Group, Ambrotype about Family Group, Ambrotype
  • Image of Unframed Family Group, Tintype
    Unframed Family Group, Tintype about Unframed Family Group, Tintype
  • Image of Family Group with Photographer's Darkcart, Tintype
    Family Group with Photographer's Darkcart, Tintype about Family Group with Photographer's Darkcart, Tintype
  • Image of Family Group with Photographer's Diffuser, Tintype
    Family Group with Photographer's Diffuser, Tintype about Family Group with Photographer's Diffuser, Tintype
  • Image of Mother and Child on a Bathing Machine, Ambrotype
    Mother and Child on a Bathing Machine, Ambrotype about Mother and Child on a Bathing Machine, Ambrotype
  • Image of Three Women by a Bathing Machine, Ambrotype circa 1870
    Three Women by a Bathing Machine, Ambrotype circa 1870 about Three Women by a Bathing Machine, Ambrotype circa 1870
  • Image of Couple on the Sands, Ambrotype
    Couple on the Sands, Ambrotype about Couple on the Sands, Ambrotype
  • Image of Father with Sons, Ambrotype
    Father with Sons, Ambrotype about Father with Sons, Ambrotype
  • Image of Large Family Group on the Sands, Tintype​
    Large Family Group on the Sands, Tintype​ about Large Family Group on the Sands, Tintype​
  • Image of Couple on the Sands, Ambrotype​
    Couple on the Sands, Ambrotype​ about Couple on the Sands, Ambrotype​
  • Image of Family in Bathers/Studio, Unframed Tintype
    Family in Bathers/Studio, Unframed Tintype about Family in Bathers/Studio, Unframed Tintype
  • Image of Couple in Bathers/Studio
    Couple in Bathers/Studio about Couple in Bathers/Studio