As photography took centre stage in the 19th century dubious practices began to creep in. Such was the competition for customers, people were often accosted in the street, at fairs and race meetings by snappers hungry for sitters. Some photographers went further. They promised to summon up photographs of dear departed family members and friends. A third way in which photography was misused was by out and out plagiarism.
As the century wore on it became fashionable to collect images of the good, the great and the famous. Of course, photographers were more than willing to sell such delights to paying customers, especially if everyday business was a bit slow. However, less scrupulous photographers also got in on the act and pirated copies of popular celebrities began to appear. Only recently I found possible evidence of this practice when sorting through my own collection.
The image above was taken by Camille Silvy at his Bayswater studio, where he specialised in photographing members of the upper echelons of society. Although the identity of the sitter is not known, she was evidently a lady of high status, as her dress and demeanour show. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found a copy of this same photograph, this time with the name of a Swiss photographer, M. Vollenweider of Bern, on the reverse.
It was apparent that the image on the Swiss carte de visite was a copy of Silvy’s original, as the same backdrop appears in many other portraits from his studio. Added to this is the fact that the Swiss copy has less definition and a rather faded sepia tone. The Silvy photo is much crisper, allowing details such as the texture of the lace shawl to be seen in greater detail. However, there is one aspect of the Silvy image that puzzles me. It is evidently a cropped version of the photograph, as the Swiss copy shows more of the floor and slightly more of the window frame above the lady’s head.
It is possible that Silvy himself sent out his popular portraits to other photographers in order to boost his income at a time when he was experiencing financial and personal difficulties. In fact, when this image was made (in the mid-1860s) he was perhaps already thinking of returning to France, the country of his birth. By the late 1860s he crossed the Channel for the last time, leaving behind a lasting legacy of some sixteen or seventeen thousand photographic plates. These are now housed in the National Portrait Gallery in London and some of Silvy’s photographic portraits can be seen online. Sadly, though, not the one of the lady near the window, whose image made its way to Bern in Switzerland.