I don’t much like having my portrait taken. The longer the process goes on, and the more expectant I am of a good result, the worse it seems to get. So how much do you have to know about being photographed to get a good portrait? How many times do you need to be photographed before you know not to strike a certain pose or expression? How many photographs do you have to see before you understand how to act when they are taken?
What if there were so few photographs of you and each of them represented a failed attempt to look like the person you thought you were? You put on your best clothes, did your hair and hoped for the best. But each time a new opportunity to have your photograph taken came along you were too worried about it all to relax.
Perhaps you had your photograph taken and (unhappy with the results) thought well that idea will never take off – who wants that? At the time these portraits were made the ability to print photographs (rather than illustrations) in newspapers and other printed media was still a fairly recent development.
These are moving portraits of women in whose appearance life is apparent. Hard work has left its mark and so has loss. The reasons these women had their portraits taken is up for speculation. Perhaps someone else felt they should have one or perhaps it was just what people did to be recorded and counted amongst the flow. If they aren’t elegant then that is perhaps our fault for expecting too much and being too knowing about the process of having our picture taken (what was successful or purposeful about these photographs is another question).
I don’t usually try and find equivalent examples of the work of Master European photographers in our collection. Though there are links, our histories of photography don’t simply fit into the established photographic canon and, more blatantly, they have been excluded anyway. Yet the works of early twentieth century German photographer, August Sander (1876-1964) have always moved me and I can’t help finding connections with these photographs of women taken in Wellington by Berry & Co. in roughly the same period that Sander was working.
While these are commercial studio portraits taken with a different intent from Sander’s, they share something of his ideas and drive to depict ordinary people – to not exclude the workers, women, children and the physically and mentally impaired from the historical record. As commercial portraits – taken at the request of the subject – they are an expression of the democratic impact of photographic portraiture.
Sander’s Cycle series, which includes a set of photographs titled The Woman, has just been exhibited at this year’s Paris Photo LA. A mix of historical through to contemporary, Paris Photo is held each year in Paris and Los Angeles and it is probably the only way to see a large amount of international historical photography in one place. In the mean time, anticipating our future obsession with our appearance in photographs, is this final image of a young woman looking at an image of a woman published in a printed magazine.
You can view photographs by August Sander on the websites of The J. Paul Getty Museum and MoMA.
Lissa Mitchell – Curator Historical Documentary Photography