New Histories of Writing II:
University of Amsterdam
writer's portrait: An exploration of the influence of photography on authors
and authorship in the nineteenth century
that photography has reached such perfection in the year 2003 that we
think nothing of sending photographs by telephone at a moment's notice,
it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand how spectacular and
incredible the invention of the daguerreotype around 1839 would have seemed
to people of the 19th century. They were of course familiar with painted
miniature portraits or engravings, but photography after all was quite
different. And even though we cannot imagine just how different, most
of us know the sensation of reading the work of a 19th-century author,
discovering something of his or her life, becoming interested, and then
suddenly coming across a photograph of the author: so that's what he looked
like! Whether the sensation is positive or negative, the photograph arouses
Without a photograph, evidently, the picture is not complete. In this paper I would like to examine writers and photography in greater depth. How did the rise of photography affect literature? I will not discuss photography in general terms, as many have already done, but will broach relatively unknown territory, namely the impact of photographic portraits of writers on the production, distribution and consumption of literature in the 19th century.1 For the history of writing is also the history of the context in which that writing took place, and the new inventions that writers encountered played a role. In a sense this paper can also be regarded as indebted to 'visual culture' studies. For many people, the visual aspect of culture is a powerful component of cultural communication, because the seen may be the surface of an underlying and unseen system of meaning. Visual culture examines the act of seeing as a product of the tensions between the external images or objects, and internal thought processes.2 The 19th century is particularly interesting in this respect, as the visual began to be more and more exploited during this period. For the 19th-century reader, words and images for example were combined increasingly often, in the form of illustrated novels and magazines. The following discussion concerns work-in-progress, so that more questions will be raised than answered.
portraits as such, it must be said, were nothing new in the 19th century.
For engraved writers' portraits had been in existence for a long time,
even constituting a separate genre in the 17th century, in the form of
the 'portrait poem', which Rembrandt also frequently employed. The portrait
poem (as the name implies) consisted of a portrait accompanied by a poem
on the individual portrayed, often a writer. The Netherlands at all events
had one collector of painted and engraved writers' portraits, namely Arnoud
van Haalen, who had built up an enormous collection by the beginning of
the 18th century, including both his own work and that of others.3 In
1719 his collection amounted to more than 200 portraits. These were also
accompanied by verses, in the 283-page volume Panpoeticum Batavum by Lambert
The writer's portrait as such was thus universally known, but the engraved portrait did not give way imperceptibly to the photographic portrait. Various accounts testify that to the 19th-century mind, photography was little short of a mystery. In 1856, for example, a French country inn-keeper named Gazebon asked the famous photographer Felix Nadar to take his photograph at a distance - for Nadar lived in Paris - as he had heard that you could have your picture taken without being physically present. And Honoré de Balzac seriously believed that every time you were photographed, your body lost a thin outer layer of skin.4 In her famous essay Susan Sontag wrote that the invention of photography enabled people to know what their parents looked like in former days, and what they themselves looked like as children.5 With painted and engraved portraits you could not be so sure. It was well known that these often bore not the slightest resemblance. Painted miniatures had a primarily symbolic value, comparable to the locket of hair. In England at the beginning of the 19th century it was the fashion to commission a portrait of your beloved's eye, and to wear it in miniature, as if you could recognise this painted eye from among thousands. Silhouettes did give a good resemblance, according to contemporary accounts, but they naturally portrayed only part of the face. The daguerreotype resembled the silhouette and the miniature in that only one prototype existed. It was therefore a very personal thing. Daguerreotypes were printed on metal, not paper, and the surface was so easily damaged that the image had to be kept airtight behind glass, and was therefore made up into a locket or brooch, or else kept in a case, glass and all.6
As a result, such daguerreo-portraits were treated as painted miniatures had been for centuries: cherished as precious trinkets, they were primarily a token of affection for the person portrayed. But because the daguerreotype was so eerily realistic, it had more than a symbolic value. Photography presented both reality and a more profound truth. For, other than one is inclined to think today, people in the 19th century were convinced that photography actually gave more insight into someone's inner self than paintings or engravings. This is shown by remarks by contemporaries, such as that of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. According to her, a photographic portrait captured 'the very shadow of the person', as she wrote in a letter of 1843. And Walt Whitman, who was greatly interested in photography, wrote: 'the strange fascination of looking at the eyes of a portrait sometimes goes beyond what comes from the real orbs themselves.'7 It is not surprising that the daguerreotypist enjoyed great prestige in the early years. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (1851) the photographer makes his appearance as a character. In this novel the Balzaccian fear is expressed that a photograph is not just an image, but a part of the individual portrayed which has acquired a life of its own. The rural maiden Phoebe looks at a portrait and is struck by the glittering of the glass plate, so that she seems to be looking into a mirror, at a face which stares eerily back at her. Precisely because shutter speed was so slow, facial expressions acquired something ghostly, although the image was otherwise so realistic. Early photographers therefore had to do their best to produce not merely a likeness, but a genuine portrait. 'The Daguerreotype will never do for portrait painting', declared Lewis Gaylord Clark gloomily in 1839: 'Its pictures are too natural'.8 In all its incomprehensibility the new invention made demands not so much on the intelligence as on the imagination. Although it was technical in nature, therefore, it was also an art form, although some contested the latter point. Baudelaire proved to be one of the greatest faultfinders with regard to photography, precisely because of the high degree of reality produced by a photograph. As a refined aesthete, he feared that those who felt that art should imitate nature would accept photography with open arms as the highest form of art, since it approached reality most closely.9
On the grounds of all these examples we may conclude that early photographs served as a sort of fetish. A photograph of someone, a writer for example, was thus quite different from an engraved portrait or a silhouette. As long as only one prototype of a daguerreotype could be made, it was impossible to distribute photographs of yourself to many people at once, as celebrities do today. What was possible, and was often done, was to make a lithographic copy of a daguerreotype. This led to accurate and reproducible portraits which were sometimes difficult to distinguish from an actual photograph. This was seen as a new technique, and it was therefore explicitly stated when a lithograph had been taken 'from a daguerreotype'. You often see such lithographs as frontispiece to an almanac or other work of belles-lettres. As early as 1850 the American photographer and photographic gallery owner Matthew Brady produced a book, in instalments, of lithographs based on photographs, which he called The Gallery of Illustrious Americans.
Nevertheless, many people took the trouble to go and look at real daguerreotypes, just as these days we are (generally) not content with a mere postcard of the Mona Lisa. The most popular daguerreotypes were those of famous people. For the first time, visitors to the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855 could inspect a large collection of photographic portraits of famous people, including writers: it was a huge success. All over the United States daguerreotype galleries sprung up like mushrooms. These consisted of exhibition space, often with a studio at the back. Those of Matthew Brady and Plumbe were famous. In his memoirs Nadar writes about several Parisian galleries, and remarks that the clientèle was an added attraction to passers-by, 'for they found it just as interesting to peer through the glass of the display windows at the succession of famous visitors, who seated themselves on the yellow velvet cushions of the great round divan, passing the photographs of the day to each other.'10 It was a real meeting place for the intellectual élite of Paris, whose visitors according to Nadar included Théophile Gautier and, oddly enough, that critic of photography, Baudelaire. Nadar had managed to persuade even him to pose for the camera. Thanks to such daguerreotype galleries it was possible after all to become familiar with the faces of famous writers.11
It would soon become technically possible for every reader to buy one of these photographs of writers for himself, namely around 1855, when the production of several prints from a single permanent and pinpoint-sharp glass negative was made possible by means of the wet-plate process. In the meantime, however, making a photographic portrait was very expensive, costing ten guilders in the Netherlands around the middle of the 19th century, the equivalent of one and a half weeks' wages for a working man. When, in 1854, the French photographer A.A. Disderi hit on the idea of printing various small images the size of a visiting card (9 x 6 cm) from a single plate, a new era was born. These cartes de visites, as they were called, proved a great success. It had now become possible for the beau monde, and even for the man in the street, to hand out photo-portraits as souvenirs on all sides. A single photograph of visiting-card format cost less than 25 cents in the Netherlands. Photographs became mass produced. This led, among other things, to a flourishing trade in collectable cartes de visites of famous people, including writers.. Special albums were designed for them, embellished with velvet and inlaid with ivory. The Leids Prentenkabinet (Leiden Print Gallery) numbers several of these albums in its collection, containing various photographs of writers. The French and British royal families permitted their portraits to come onto the market, while in the Netherlands, portraits of the youthful Princess Wilhelmina became a collector's item. Britain's Queen Victoria had a hundred or so albums of her own, in which the crowned heads of Europe and other celebrities were stored. Famous people were sometimes paid for posing, as this was still very time-consuming at that period.12 On the other hand, it could also serve to their own advantage. It has been surmised that President Lincoln's election as president was boosted by the portrait cards in circulation during the campaign of 1860, and which transformed him from an unknown to a familiar figure - there is evidently nothing new under the sun, in that respect.13
Some authors sold their own portraits; this was the case at least with the Netherlands' most famous 19th-century writer, Multatuli. He had a window made at his publishers' office, where the portraits were sold. He insisted on a good likeness; rejecting photographs which were too unlike. The primary aim of Multatuli, generally seen as an unconventional, even vain man, was to use the money so earned to found a new daily newspaper. His publisher G.L. Funke put a separate portrait of Multatuli on the market.14
Publishers zeroed in on the public's demand to see the faces of famous people, by bringing out photo books such as Men of mark: a gallery of contemporary portraits of men distinguished in the senate, the church, in science, literature and art, the army, navy, law, medicine etc. (London 1876), Galerie contemporaine, littéraire, artistique (Paris 1876-1894) and in the Netherlands Onze hedendaagse letterkundigen (Our contemporary men-of-letters) compiled by Jan ten Brink (1885). The portraits in these collectors' albums, which came out in serial form, are sharp and unadorned by photographer's props and suchlike. The important thing was to express the character of the person portrayed. Among the politicians and scientists portrayed in these 'galleries', we also find writers, such as Victor Hugo and Jules Verne; the Dutch publication even devoted itself exclusively to writers.
Around 1860-1870, books with pasted-in photographs came into fashion, but the laborious technique ruled out mass production.15 The purchaser could in some case order his publication with or without a photographic portrait of the author, according to Dutch national biographical accounts. In 1870, a volume of poetry by the famous Dutch popular poet Jan Pieter Heije cost 2 guilders with a pasted-in portrait, 1.25 guilders without: you could also buy the portrait separately for 75 cents.16 The publisher usually pasted such portraits inside the book, but there are also publications where they form part of the cover, as an engraving or medallion.17 There were bibliophiles who commissioned an exclusive portrait or medallion of the author for the binding of their favourite books. The brothers De Goncourt favoured this practice, as their book collection testifies.18 The extent to which the writer's portrait had become established is shown by a matchbox dating from 1880, on which the manufacturer has stuck a portrait of the Dutch short story writer, J.J. Cremer.19 I do not know whether matchboxes bore the portraits of other writers at such an early date.
On the grounds of such phenomena you can conclude that the 19th-century public was evidently eager to know what writers looked like in real life: what sort of clothes they wore and what kind of state these were in (often remarkably bad, going by the many missing buttons in Nadar's photographs, for example), whether they had wrinkles and how their moustaches and beards were trimmed. This is also shown by the fact that images of writers crop up in another 19th-century innovation: the waxworks museum. I managed to get hold of the 1882 catalogue for an Amsterdam waxworks, which showed that, besides the usual statesmen and scientists, the Amsterdam public could feast its eyes on Alexandre Dumas and Goethe, among others. No Dutch writers were included, but the waxworks director frankly admitted in the catalogue that he had completely followed the lead of English and German examples, namely Madame Tussaud of London, and Castan of Berlin.20
Some writers, such as Balzac and Gerard de Nerval, were reluctant to have their photographs taken, while others were very keen. In the Netherlands it was regarded as a honour to have your photograph adorn the annual Muzenalmanak (Almanac of the Muses).21 Writers who took an interest in the new technique included Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Von Humboldt, Lamartine and (somewhat later) Emile Zola, Lewis Carroll and August Strindberg. A hundred or so portraits of Walt Whitman were made, the most famous (but unfortunately lost) being the one used for the lithograph in the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855). This first publication of Whitman's has no author's name on the cover, only the portrait of the relaxed-looking, attractive author. Whitman himself wrote that his book was 'a reproduction of the author'. 'His name is not on the frontispiece, but his portrait, half-length, is. The contents of the book form a daguerreotype of his inner being [ ]'.22 With this portrait, which shows not just the head and shoulders of the author, but extends far below the waist, Whitman was playing with the expectations of the reader, who would have been accustomed to the poet's classical pose, seated at his desk, or showing only head and shoulders, and naturally sporting a high collar and traditional side-whiskers. For every profession had adopted a standard pose of its own.23 As the century progressed you saw avant-garde writers freeing themselves of this. This was the case in the Netherlands, with the Tachtigers, or Eighties Movement, a group of writers who adopted an anti-bourgeois attitude, both in their work and in the context of their lives. They had themselves photographed in quite a different way from their predecessors, by renowned photographer friends such as G. Breitner and W. Witsen. Their photographs resemble impressions, captured moments in time, shockingly honest.24 Writers thus began to exert themselves more to achieve a suitable image.
At this point,
two conclusions can be drawn. The first is that a writer's photograph
in the 19th century was seen as something essentially different from an
engraved portrait. The second is that there was great demand for photographs
of writers. The question then arises: does the rise of the writer's portrait
have more than anecdotal significance? Did the writer's portrait bring
about a new way of looking at authors? Or is the writer's portrait itself
a result of a new way of looking at or approach to authors? In conclusion
I will therefore discuss the emergence of the writer's photograph from
the perspective of the three most important parties in the book production
communication model - writers, publishers, readers - in order to arrive
at a number of concrete points for research.
Publishers: we have seen that publishers were quick to compile photo-books around writers and to paste photographs of writers in books. And we know what the writer's photo-portrait led to in the long term. When you buy a novel these days, you nearly always see a photograph of the author on the back cover. Publishers believe that if the author is seen, the book will sell better, leading them to push writers not only in front of the camera, but also onto television. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Dutch publisher Vassallucci recently went so far as to have its authors parade on a catwalk in front of an international audience. Critics swear that an attractive woman writer these days has more chance of achieving best-seller status than a plain one. Were 19th-century publishers also awake to the power of the writer's photograph to boost sales? Were photographic portraits, or lithos based on them, used in their advertising campaigns? Students of the UVA are presently working on research into the archives of the Royal Dutch Book Trade Association (Nederlandse Koninklijke Vereniging van het Boekenvak), and an initial exploration has shown that the number of authors' portraits is rather disappointing. Publishers could be called commercial in various respects, but not so much with regard to the exploitation of a writer's looks. Perhaps because of the cost factor.
Readers: In the reception of a literary work, to what extent did readers allow themselves to be influenced by the realistic, and the 'human - all too human' image of the writer, as portrayed in the photograph? To find out one would have to search for comments in reviews or diaries. Various writers in the 19th century mention the fact that photography had invaded their privacy. Alfred Lord Tennyson, for example, complained to Julia Margaret Cameron: 'I can't be anonymous because of your confounded photographs.'25 And the Dutch writer Multatuli wrote that, to his amazement, he had been recognised in the street by complete strangers. Did the rise of the writer's photographic portrait make the relationship between writer and reader more intimate, more familiar? Or, on the contrary, did fan behaviour related to portrait collecting increase the distance, because it made the writers even more famous?
Writers: In conclusion it would of course be interesting to ascertain whether the rise of the writer's photographic portrait has also left traces in writing itself. In this context I am inclined to think of writing with a more ego-minded tint, à la Walt Whitman. Did the rise of the writer's photographic portrait lead to a more honest, personal sort of confessional novel? Or perhaps to more vanity prose? It is difficult to separate such effects from general trends, such as the rise of commerce in literary culture or in the generally increased display of the self. One question which arises is: to what extent can we speak of an international trend in this respect? This seems to me a fruitful subject of discussion.
1 For various studies on the relationship between literature and photography in general, see: Erwin Koppen, Literatur und Photographie. Uber Geschichte und Thematik einer Medienentdeckung Stuttgart 1987; Bernd Stiegler, Philologie des Auges. Die photographische Entdeckung der Welt im 19 Jahrhundert Munich 2001; Miles Orvell, The real thing Chapel Hill 1989; Jane M. Rabb, Literature & photography. Interactions 1840-1990.
2 E.Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the interpretation of visual culture London 2000, p. 14
3 Thanks to Bram Schuytvlot who drew my attention to this collector. See also M.A. Schenkeveld-Van der Dussen, Retorica van Onderzoek Utrecht 1990, pp. 15-16.
4 Felix Nadar, Toen ik fotograaf was Amsterdam 2000.
5 Susan Sontag, On photography 1973
6 Mattie Boom, 150 jaar fotografie The Hague 1989, p. 11.
7 Walt Whitman, 'Visit to Plumbe's Gallery July 2 1846' in: Jane M. Rabb, Literature & photography. Interactions 1840-1990, pp. 19-22.
8 Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs. Images as History. Matthew Brady to Walker Evans New York 1989.
9 Susan Blood 'Baudelaire against photography: an allegory of old age' M.L.N. 101 (1986) nr. 4, pp. 817-837.
10 Quoted from Felix Nadar, Toen ik fotograaf was Amsterdam 2000, pp. 135-136.
11 Research must yet show whether or not such exclusive photographic galleries existed in the Netherlands. There was no such gallery in Amsterdam, at all events, as is shown by a sample survey based on the almanac Amsterdam. Gids met platen Amsterdam 1882. Art dealers who sold photographs did exist however.
12 Naomi Rosenblum A World History of Photography NY 1984, p. 72
13 Naomi Rosenblum A World History of Photography NY 1984, p. 63
14 See K. ter Laan, Multatuli encyclopedie (under sale of portraits).
15 J. de Zoete in D. van Lente (ed.) De techniek van de Nederlandse boekillustratie in de 19e eeuw Amstelveen 1995, p. 102.
16 See D. van Lente (ed.) op.cit 1995, p. 97.
17 See the publication by J.P. Hasebroek (publisher W.H. Kirberger, Amsterdam) Dicht en ondicht, shown in Fons van der Linden, In linnen gebonden. Nederlandse uitgeversbanden van 1840-1940 Veenendaal 1997 p. 113. It is an example of a woodburytype from a photograph. A real photograph is pasted on to the front cover of C.H. Spurgeon, His Life and Work (1877), as can be seen in Ruari McLean, Victorian Publishers' Book-bindings in cloth and leather (Gordon Fraser 1974, p. 140). (with thanks to Bram Schuytvlot).
18 Octave Uzanne, l'Art dans la décoration extérieure des livres Paris 1898 (pp. 169, 172, 173, 180, 184, 185). With thanks to Ed Schilders.
19 See Henk Eijssens (ed.) Distels in het weiland 1980 's Gavenhage p. XL.
20 Catalogus van de verschillende beelden en groepen met geschiedkundig overzicht. Nederlandsch Panopticum 1882 Amsterdam.
21 See B.P.M. Dongelmans, J. Immerzeel (1992): the Muzenalmanak, which came into being at the beginning of the 19th century, contained engravings or lithographs. The writers thus portrayed often complained about the poor resemblance.
22 Whitman in the Brooklyn Eagle, quoted from Miles Orvell, The real thing. Imitation and authenticity in American culture, 1880-1940 Chapel Hill/London 1989, p.8.
23 Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs. Images as History. Matthew Brady to Walker Evans New York 1989 p. 28.
24 Cf. Charles Vergeer, Toen werden schoot en boezem lekkernij Amsterdam 1990, see also I. de Groot, Willem Witsen 2003.
25 Quotation from Rabb, Literature and photography.