|Photographers have captured people, famous and ordinary, in portraits posed in the studio or caught in moments of everyday life, since the beginning of photography 160 years ago. These images prompt us to ask questions about these people and why they had their picture taken for others to see.
When Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre invented, in 1837, a way of recording an image onto metal – the Daguerrotype – people rushed to have their likenesses recorded.
The carte-de-visite format, developed by Andre-Adolphe Eugene Disdéri in 1854, further popularized portraiture in Paris and lead to a worldwide interest in portrait studios. Cartes-de-visite, which were small cardboard “calling cards,” could be cheaply and easily reproduced via the glass plate process. This meant that having your portrait captured was no longer the one-off and expensive process of previous years.
At first, the photographic career of Reuben Sallows paralleled that of most photographers of this period, specializing in formal portraits and cartes-de-visite, shot in elaborate studio settings.
Most early portraits were carefully posed and some touched up to produce a flattering image. Lengthy exposure times required the person sitting to keep still for long periods of time, so often in full-length portraits a chair, table or mock classical pillar was included, serving both as a support and as decoration. Smiles were difficult to sustain, so in early photographs people often looked quite sober.
Painted backdrops, some of which were quite elaborate, were frequently used in early studio photographs. Examples of these can be seen in the many portraits and group portraits produced by Sallows.
Early photographic materials were bulky and time-consuming to use. Cameras were large and cumbersome – the Graphlex camera which Reuben R. Sallows used weighed more than 10 pounds, required the use of a tripod, and long exposure times often in excess of 20 seconds. Images were created on glass-plate negatives and lighting had to be strong and constant.
Around 1900 most photographers were still working indoors, producing studio shots against artificial backdrops. R.R. Sallows however, chose to forsake the stiff photographs of the studio and took his camera out to the fields and farms of his native Colborne Township, near Goderich. He showed life at the turn of the century.
Years before his death Sallows wrote: “I always strive to take people unawares, in their natural moods, at their common callings, or in familiar surroundings – all of which I find imparts natural and lifelike qualities to all my studies.” It was these portraits, most of which were informally posed and appearing to tell a story, that made him one of the celebrated photographers of his day.