Part Photograph, Part Painting, Part Etching, Part Sculpture

From its beginnings in 1839, photography was seen as an alternative to traditional painted portraiture. Clients who were photographed knew that their image would be considered true to life. But photography had a major disadvantage with respect to painting: it was not in color. While the world awaited the discovery of natural color photography, many a photographer throughout the nineteenth century experimented his way out of this problem. One of the alternatives was the use of pigments to hand-color photographs—some went even as far as over-painting their pictures entirely to achieve a more colorful image.

Unidentified Photographer, [Unidentified Woman], ca. 1878 (2012.111.55)

With the introduction of tintype technology, photographic portraiture was brought to the masses. Painted and decorative framed tintypes were produced in large numbers from the 1860s through the 1890s in many parts of the United States, especially rural areas. The creation of these objects employed framemakers, photographers, and folk art painters whose portrait business had declined in the face of this quicker and cheaper technology. Hand-coloring photographs became a common practice in commercial studios and having an over-painted portrait became a status symbol—the more paint was used, the more expensive it was. Poorer people could only afford a little touch of the brush, often enough only to add some rouge on the cheeks and some gold paint to accentuate jewelry. According to Geoffrey Batchen (Each Wild Idea, 2001: pp. 61-64), even the smallest addition brings a subjective, “artistic” element to the otherwise dull objectivity of a standard studio portrait.

Unidentified Photographer, [Unidentified Woman], ca. 1888 (2012.111.60)

Batchen emphasizes that these portraits are fascinating for what we do not see—the photograph, for example. In many of them, the photographic base has been almost entirely covered by paint, or, in the case of some of the backgrounds, erased through the application of acid. Since the resulting image was then often elaborately framed and matted, Batchen characterizes it as a strangely hybrid piece of work—part photograph, part painting, part etching, part sculpture.

Unidentified Artist, [Traveling mirror with portrait of man wearing a hat], ca. 1860s (2001.2005)

Batchen states that the procedure for making these objects is odd as well. First you take a photographic portrait, in order to create a realistic image of the person being portrayed. Then you hide the “proof” beneath a layer of often unprofessionally applied paint. The mechanical exactitude of the camera is present—we are aware of its foundational role—but the eye perceives only the traces left by the hand of the painter. Nevertheless, Batchen argues that however clumsy the artist, the over-painted portrait is still supported by the supposedly true value of its original photographic nature.

Unidentified Photographer, [Unidentified Woman], ca. 1875 (2012.111.9)

Unidentified Photographer, [Soldier], ca. 1882 (2012.111.34)


About Renske van Leeuwen

Intern Collections at the International Center of Photography, New York and MA student Film & Photographic Studies at Leiden University, the Netherlands.
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