Did you know that portrait photography has been in existence for over 2000 years? Knowing that I have only been doing it for almost three is a little overwhelming. I personally wanted to know more about the history of photography, and I wanted to share my new found experience with you.
Portrait photography has existed since before the first conventional camera. It is daunting and awe inspiring to look and see how far the photography industry, and the technology has advanced. Have you ever looked at your camera phone, and thoroughly understood, not only the technology involved, but the in depth systems, that have in fact been around since first century BC.
Sculpture and bronze statues are among the best kept records of Western portraiture. This shows that only the elite or upper classes had portraits commissioned. The first portraits were funerary portraits, which remembered the deceased and were painted with care to create the best possible likeness. Though many of us probably wouldn’t want an image of the deceased – we prefer to remember our loved ones as they were or are – can you imagine the lengthy process compared to the instance that exists now. Everything is on tap, and I think sometimes we take for granted how quickly everything can happen.
The artists that created these funerary portraits used light to create dimension. This portrayed a novel understanding of shadowing and the importance of good and natural lighting; something that I swear by when taking portraits. As well as good lighting, position, background lighting and backdrop were also considered, and were a precursor for professional portrait photography. If you have read many of my other blog posts, you would know how much I emphasise the importance of these four factors.
The first processes for photography came about in 1839, when Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot introduced the daguerreotype. This was the beginning of everything for professional photography. Portraits that took hours instantly became faster and more efficient. Photography developed rapidly (not as rapidly as it does now), and shortly after the daguerreotype, highly sensitised materials reduced exposure times down from 30 minutes to a matter of seconds.
As photography progressed, particularly with the introduction of dry plates, photographers were able to move away from the confines of the studio and darkrooms. With this freedom, an expansion of settings became available and wider approaches were discovered. For example, while Matthew Brady (1823–1896) had a studio, many of his most powerful portraits were made on the battlefield. From this development of photography, societies and organisations were established that became, and still are important to the development of portrait photography. These include the Royal Photographic Society, which was set up in 1853. If you are looking for something to do with the kids in the Easter holidays, or are a budding portrait photographer I would try to get to one of their exhibitions, they are breath taking.

As photography matured in both technology and aesthetics, portraiture changed as well. One trend that emerged in the late 19th century was pictorialism. A term which refers to the style in which the photographer has somehow manipulated what would otherwise be a straightforward photograph, as a means of creating a photograph rather than just recording it. This effect was to give photographers more freedom to approach portraiture. There are now several styles of portrait photography, my favourite being (as you probably know) reportage.
For me, great photography documents a journey and tells a story, and this is what I aim to do for my clients and their special moments.
In 1913, Dr Oskar Barnack produced the Leica, the first simple to use small format 35mm camera. Ten years later, they were being mass produced. Then in 1929, this was followed by the Rolleiflex, and then the Maniyaflex in the 1960s. These technical developments affected visual culture, as it had done in the 19th century.
I think that it is miraculous how far portrait photography has developed, and judging by the predicted and further advancements in camera and phone technology, the 21st century will develop photography beyond the unthinkable. However, with the popularity in camera phones, and the rise of the selfie, it is important to remember the true value of professional photography (sometimes, even I need to remember). Quality still takes time, and it takes more than the click of a button to create the perfect portrait.
What is the history of your profession? How valuable is the past to understand not only the future, but the importance of what you do? Email info@kimrixphotography.co.uk the brief history of your industry, and I will feature the best ones on my Facebook page.
Kim Rix Photography
Making Memories Precious