I/Eye: On Photography

Your (whiskered) likeness

Posted in Uncategorized by Sheila Newbery on March 7, 2010

Barton family dog (Nero?), ca. 1880 (American Antiquarian Society)

from Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (1851; Dover 1968):

‘Statement of a Photographic Man’

When we are not busy, we always fill up the time taking specimens for the window. Anybody who’ll sit we take him; or we do one another, and the young woman in the shop who colours. Specimens are very useful things to us, for this reason, — if anybody comes in a hurry, and won’t give us time to do the picture, then, as we can’t afford to let her go, we sit her and goes through all the business, and I says to Jim, “Get one from the window,” and then he takes the first specimen that comes to hand. Then we fold it up in paper, and don’t allow her to see it until she pays for it, and tell her not to expose it to the air for three days, and that if then she doesn’t approve of it and will call again we will take her another. Of course they in general comes back. We have made some queer mistakes doing this. One day a young lady came in, and wouldn’t wait, so Jim takes a specimen from the window, and, as luck would have it, it was the portrait of a widow in her cap. She insisted upon opening, and then she said, “This isn’t me; it’s got a widow’s cap, and I was never married in all my life!” Jim answers, “Oh, miss! why it’s a beautiful picture, and a correct likeness,” — and so it was, and no lies, but it wasn’t of her. — Jim talked to her, and says he, “Why this ain’t a cap, it’s the shadow of the hair, — for she had ringlets, — and she positively took it away believing that such was the case; and even promised to send us customers, which she did.

There was another lady that came in a hurry, and would stop if we were not more than a minute; so Jim ups with a specimen, without looking at it, and it was the picture of a woman and her child. We went through the business of focussing the camera, and then gave her the portrait and took the 6 d. When she saw it she cries out, “Bless me! there’s a child: I haven’t ne’er a child!” Jim looked at her, and then at the picture, as if comparing, and says he, “It is certainly a wonderful likeness, miss, and one of the best we ever took. It’s the way you sat; and what has occasioned it was a child passing through the yard.” She said she supposed it must be so, and took the portrait away highly delighted.

Once a sailor came in, and as he was in haste, I shoved on to him the picture of a carpenter, who was to call in the afternoon for his portrait. The jacket was dark, but there was a white waistcoat; still I persuaded him that it was his blue Guernsey which had come up very light, and he was so pleased that he gave us 9 d. instead of 6 d. The fact is, people don’t know their own faces. Half of ’em have never looked in a glass half a dozen times in their life, and directly they see a pair of eyes and a nose, they fancy they are their own.

The only time we were done was with an old woman. We had only one specimen left, and that was a sailor man, very dark — one of our black pictures. But she put on her spectacles, and she looked at it up and down, and says, “Eh?” I said, “Did you speak, ma’am?” and she cries, “Why, this is a man! here’s the whiskers.” I left, and Jim tried to humbug her, for I was bursting with laughing. Jim said, “It’s you ma’am; and a very excellent likeness, I assure you.” But she kept on saying, “Nonsense, I ain’t a man,” and wouldn’t have it. Jim wanted her to leave a deposit, and come next day, but she never called. It was a little too strong.

There was an old woman come in once and wanted to be taken with a favourite hen in her lap. It was a very bad picture, and so black there was nothing but the outline of her face and a white speck for the beak of the bird. When she saw it, she asked where the bird was? So Jim took a pin and scratched in an eye, and said, “There it is, ma’am — that’s her eye, it’s coming out,” and then he made a line for the comb on the head, and she kept saying, “Wonderful!” and was quite delighted.

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