It wasn’t always easy being a photographer in 19th century Britain. As with any new technology, many jumped onto the bandwagon with hopes and dreams of a prosperous future. However, unless they were among the upper echelons of society, there were many pits into which these young hopefuls could fall.
The first hurdle to overcome was finance, buying all the right equipment and funding premises for a studio. Also needed were the blank cards onto which photographs could be mounted; for one printing firm, Marion of Paris, this proved to be a very lucrative market. For photographers with deep pockets this was not a problem, though for those who were restricted financially, the possibility of failure was ever-present.
The next problem for every photographer was how to attract customers to the studio. At first this would have been achieved by word of mouth or perhaps adverts in the local paper. Once carte de visite photographs became the norm, the backs of these mini-images provided the ideal space for decorative and advertising purposes. As photographers vied for custom, the designs became ever more fanciful and eclectic, though the more sophisticated photographer would retain a certain restrained elegance of style. As well as the initial outlay for equipment etc, the studio itself needed to be ‘dressed’. Curtains, drapes, painted backcloths, carpeting, chairs and tables were all utilised to present the visual environment in which the sitter was positioned for their image to be captured. Other props such as books, floral arrangements, and even the family dog, were roped in to provide a hopefully artistic atmosphere. Once captured, the image was by no means safe. It wasn’t unknown for the volatile chemicals in the developing process to burst into flames if laid out to dry in the sun.
Despite, or perhaps because of, all these preparations, many businesses were
doomed to fail. Reports in newspapers, entries in trade directories and the census tell a sad tale of short-lived business partnerships being dissolved and photographers being forced to take on alternative occupations to keep their families afloat financially. Some canny photographers got a head start by combining photography with established businesses such as chemist, instrument maker or picture framer. Portrait painters were another group that soon latched on to the advantages of photography, replacing the old art with the new technology. One resourceful photographer even worked as a gardener in between sittings in his studio.
There were two other aspects of life in the 19th century that might cause a photographic business to fail. One was bankruptcy, the other, shocking to us today, of racial and religious antipathy. One photographer who suffered both the indignities was Augustus Mahalski who set up as a photographer in York, having fled from his native Poland. There were many newspaper reports over the years of the trials and tribulations of the unfortunate Augustus, including anti-Semitic abuse. Despite this, he worked hard to succeed in his new environment; that he did manage to keep his head above water, just, was a tribute to his powers of endurance and determination. This same story could be repeated for many other photographers escaping poverty and persecution in their own homelands.
In the end, though, whether they succeeded or failed, the photographers of Victoria’s reign left us a lasting legacy in the sheer number of photographs and advertisments that survive to this day, including those included in this piece. I hope you like them.