American Woman

Soulful eyes captured for eternity.
Soulful eyes captured for eternity.

The earliest American attempts in duplicating the photographic experiments of the Frenchman Louis Daguerre occurred at NYU in 1839. John W. Draper, professor of chemistry, built his own camera and made what may be the first human portrait taken in the United States, after a 65-second exposure. The sitter, his sister Dorothy Catherine Draper, had her face powdered with flour in an early attempt to accentuate contrasts.

courtesy New York University  (my alma mater!)

4 responses to “American Woman”

  1. Amazing! 1839 eh? I’ve been reading about Louis Daguerre and his Daguerretype, seems it differed from the European mode of photography in that more prints could be extracted from a single exposure. But the question begs: how did she sit so perfectly still for so long? I’ve read that photographers often resorted to insisting that their subjects often wore rigid movement-restraining boards under their clothing so as to fix them rigidly to the chair on which they were seated. Also, I think a ‘fixed stare’ is probably the only human expression that could be maintained for such a long period of time – which is perhaps why so many early photos catalog people peering into the camera as if about to be shot! I think we’ve touched on this before but early photographs seldom if ever show people smiling – or even happy, I wonder whether a the grim faced photographer insisting upon a bolt upright posture (not to mention the unwelcome presence of a movement restraining board worn underneath the outer layer of clothing) had anything to do with the universal expression of impending doom. We are after all talking about Victorians here, perhaps the most prim and proper human beings ever to inhabit the planet… although I wouldn’t say the above photo implies impending doom, but a great many of those who were to follow in sister Dorothy’s footsteps were almost universally somber, if not outright long in the face.


    • I wonder too if people were of the sitting for a portrait mindset. The wealthy had paintings done and quite often the people have somewhat serious expressions on their faces. Maybe the people took the portraits done in the new way just as seriously. As it became easier and cheaper to have your image done, people could relax more–who cares if one picture turns out bad now? (except people like me 🙂 )
      I was just reading about John Singer Sargent’s painting “Madam X” and supposedly the artist tortured her with the unnatural poses he made her model.

      Once at a living history event we posed for an old fashioned camera and it seemed unbearably long. Keeping a goofy smile would have been difficult.


  2. I think you might be right Martin, that,s why sometimes so hard to detect which is the living in post mortem group photos, they all have that fixed stare.
    Wonder what they would make of today’s snappy little cameras and instant images, but then seeing that thought through, I wonder what our descendants will be using, and what they,ll think of our , by then, old and decrepit photos!


    • I’m glad the people of the past didn’t stick their tongues out to the side 🙂 My mother told me that her Armenian grandmother used to tell her that people should never smile in photographs because it makes them look like fools. So some of it may be cultural, too. I think now we embrace our foolishness more–not sure if that’s good or bad.


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