I love painted portraits, and seeing how a skilled artist can reveal the most subtle nuances of character and experience with only a brush and paint.
But a photographic portrait can be equally fascinating, and equally revealing, too, in a far different way. The old saying claims that a camera never lies (at least it didn't before Photoshop), and the earlier the camera, the more truth there is in the image. The harsh bright lights and unwavering poses required by 19th c. technology forced sitters to confront the camera with a frank immediacy that leaps over the decades.
I have no idea of the identity of the intense young gentleman, left. I scanned him from my great-great grandmother's album, where none of the pictures are identified. She knew who everyone was, and a good thing, too. As a very young woman before the Civil War, she left her family's farm back east and traveled across the plains and mountains to teach school in Marin County, CA. She would never return, nor had she expected to. Her album would have her last connection with old friends and family, and I've always wondered what this sharp-eyed gentleman meant to her. From his vertical hair (all the rage mid-century) and the stylishly loose fit of his coat, I'm guessing his picture dates from the 1850s, with his birthdate twenty-five years before that. But what's 180 years with a gaze like that?
The picture of the gentleman, right, is even older. In fact it's one of the earliest surviving American daguerreotypes, dating from 1839. Philadelphia chemist and silversmith Robert Cornelius (1809-1893) was fooling around with the new process, and took this picture of himself outside his shop. His hair is tousled, his pose hastily informal, and he's squinting both at the camera and the sun: but how amazing to be able to look into the eyes of someone born more than two hundred years ago!
I'm not the only one fascinated by old images like these. Recently several other blogs have featured evocative early photographs. Versailles & More has a remarkable video drawn from photographs of the veterans of Napoleon's armies. The Sartorialist invited readers to contribute vintage family shots, with amazing results from around the world.
Most heart-breaking of all, however, are the images of adolescent girls to be found at It's About Time. These girls were inmates in the Welsh prison of Newport Usk Gaol in the 1870s, and the pictures were taken of them upon their release. Their crimes were petty, mostly theft. Their sentences all included hard labor. The oldest girl is sixteen; the youngest eleven. At left is Selina Jenkins, age twelve, who served fourteen days hard labor for stealing a cloth jacket. Hanging around her neck is a tag with her prison number, and her expression seems exhausted and wary, yet resigned as well. Could there be a more achingly truthful portrait?