Teachers' resource: Exploring Image & Identity through posters and photographs
Camille Silvy, photograph of Master HGE Gladstone, 1862. Museum no. E980-1992Photography began in the 19th century and, as technology developed, portrait photography quickly became a popular art form. People who could afford to have their photograph taken were keen to do so.
Portrait photography in the nineteenth century and today
19th century portraits
One of the first types of portrait to become popular was the 'carte-de-visite'. The work of Camille Silvy is an excellent example of this format. Cartes-de-visite were small images on cards, like 'calling cards', hence the name. As the technology was only just developing at the time, it took a while to 'capture' the image and the sitters remained in pose for a long time - often looking quite uncomfortable and not smiling! As a result the photographs were generally quite formal.
Studios kept a range of backdrops and props that would be used during the photo session. The backdrops were sometimes a collaboration between theatre scene designers and photographers - which often created a theatrical or romanticised feel. At the studios a 'set' was arranged. This would include one of a selection of backdrops combined with several props in the foreground. Clients would generally chose a backdrop to convey a particular message, e.g. a painted library behind the sitter would give a scholarly, well-read impression; swords and armour would be seen as symbols of courage and chivalry, or could show that the sitter came from a military family. Sets were sometimes arranged with classical columns, urns and furniture and these would be used for several days before the set was changed again.
The same sets would be used time and time again. Proof of this can be seen in the 'day books' that Silvy kept as a visual record. In them, he stuck a copy of all the photos taken on a particular day. These books give a lot of information about who the sitters were, when the picture was taken and how the photographs were arranged. Many of Camille Silvy's photographs reveal the surroundings of the studio, with the views continuing beyond the backdrop. The photograph would have to be cut down so any extraneous objects or background would be removed. The trimmed photographs would be mounted on card.
Clothes and fashion were an important part of photographic portraits. Tartan became fashionable because Queen Victoria was keen on Scotland. Many of the children in the Camille Silvy pictures are wearing tartan. Later in the 19th century studio shots often featured new-fangled objects such as bicycles. Only wealthy families or royalty could afford to have a specially commissioned backdrop. The images of Camille Silvy are good examples of these 'set pieces' and provide opportunities to discuss the image and its historical and cultural messages. For example, what are the messages or illusions that both the photographer and the sitter wish to convey?
Portrait photography today
Nowadays, many people are familiar with images such the school portrait photograph, informal snapshots, photo-booth images and formal photographs at events such as weddings. Photograph albums are full of pictures that demonstrate the importance of recording families and friends and capture a representation of individuals at an event or a moment in time.
We can reflect on these and recognise events from our own past. Children rarely have opportunities to take photographs of themselves - often images that exist have been controlled by other people. Photo albums are frequently edited to include only the happiest or prettiest images.
The school photo session produces hundreds of similar poses - colour photos showing head and shoulders, slightly at an angle, with a simple background like a pale blue sky. The photographer encourages children to smile and look directly at the camera. This is often the child's first encounter with a professional photographer, one who is in control of the whole process and has a clear idea about what the final image should look like.
Questions about the Posters and Photographs
The following questions could be used to stimulate discussion about the images contained in this resource:
Camille Silvy (1834-1910)
Photograph of Master HGE Gladstone
Museum no. E980-1992
- Why do you think the sitter is wearing a kilt?
- Why do you think he is leaning against a plinth? What kind of impression does this create?
- Why do you think the caged birds have been included?
- What kind of mood does the backdrop create? Why?
- What is the photograph trying to say about the sitter's social background or aspirations?
Chila Kumari Burman (1957- )
'This Is Not Me'
Colour laser print
Museum no. E.2070-1997
- Which clues are present in the photograph to suggest the sitter’s social or cultural background?
- What do you think the photographer is trying to say about the nature of identity and the relationship between a person’s image and identity?
- Do you think the photographer might be trying to say something about the limitations of photography as a medium for portraiture?
- How do you think the sitter feels about this image of herself?
'Cinema India– The Art of Bollywood'
Oil on canvas
Museum no. IS.115-2000
- Which person dominates the painting? Why is this?
- How has colour been used to suggest emotions or drama?
- What different film genres do the images represent?
- What kind of person or people (e.g. sex, age, interest) is the painting trying to appeal to?
- What is the range of emotions represented in the painting?
Comtesse de Croix-Mesnil
Portrait of two Mahometan women
Museum no. PH.3783-1904
- What is happening in the photograph?
- What kinds of clues are given about the identity of the women?
- Which of the two women dominates the photograph? Why is this?
- How important is the background to the photograph?
- What kind of building is represented in the background?
Oil on canvas
Museum no. IS.113-2002
- Why do you think the artist has chosen an orange/red background?
- What do you think is the relationship between the three people in the painting? Why do you think the man is in the middle?
- What significance do you think the bottle has to the story?
- What kinds of emotions are reflected in the painting?
- Which of the faces do you think you will remember most clearly? Why is this?
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79)
Photograph of Prince Alàmayou
Museum no. 24-1939
- The sitter is looking away from the camera. What effect does this have on how the viewer might relate to the sitter?
- What do the clothing and props in the photograph tell us about the identity of the sitter?
- Discuss with students how they think the sitter is feeling. What might he be thinking about?
- Discuss the composition of the photograph. How does the photographer ensure that the viewer’s eye is drawn to the object being held by the prince?
- How would students describe the mood of the photograph? How has the photographer created this mood?
Maud Sulter (1960- )
Dye destruction print in gilt frame
Museum no. E.1795-1991
© Maud Sulter
- Why do you think the photographer has chosen to put the sitter in a historical dress and wig? Why do you think the photographer has chosen a plain, black background?
- The image suggests that the sitter was doing something before the photograph was taken. How does the photographer achieve this? What do you think the sitter might have been doing?
- How does the photographer achieve such a strong relationship between sitter and viewer?
- Why do you think the photographer has chosen this kind of frame? Might a different frame change the way viewers respond to the image?
- What do you think the photographer is trying to say through this photograph?
Oil on canvas
Museum no. IS.114-2002
- What clues does the artist give about the identity of the woman in the story?
- What kind of film would you expect this to be?
- What do you think the woman might be looking at or thinking about?
- What might be the significance of the figure in the background?
- How would you describe the woman’s expression? What kind of emotions might she be feeling? How do her features suggest these emotions?
You may like to ask your students to refer to the following resources on the V&A website to find out further information about the images included in this resource and about photography in general:
A portrait of Francis Williams, an 18th century scholar
Hear poet Benjamin Zephaniah talking about the portrait.
In Focus: Exploring Photography
This microsite has background information about photographic processes, tours through photographs (including some by Maud Sulter) and personal stories form contemporary photographers.
Cinema India - The Art of Bollywood
Watch a video showing a Bollywood film hoarding being painted (you will find a link to both low and high resolution films in the fourth paragraph on this site).
This teachers' resource is part of the Image and Identity project funded by the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and Resource as part of the Strategic Commissioning Initiative.
Francis Williams (about 1700-about 1770) was a mathematician and poet. He was born to a free couple, John and Dorothy Williams, who within ten years of being given their freedom had amassed significant property and wealth through Jamaica's sugar industry. When his father died in 1723, Francis inherited a substantial fortune, including land, trading interests and slaves, but he preferred to live off his inheritance than attempt to increase it. He is a notable example of a rich, free black man who wrote Latin verse and enjoyed a European lifestyle.
This portrait presents Francis as a scholar in a study, surrounded by objects of education and learning associated with European scholarship. However, an open window shows him to be in the location of Spanish Town, Jamaica.