Photograpic Studios: Props


Figure 1.--We have no information about this German portrait except that it was taken by the Carl Becker studio in Naumburg, aS. We are able to date it to about 1900-05. The light grey cardboard and mount style was in use shortly after turn of the 20th century. The picture was probably taken between 1900-1905. Cardboard earlier in the 1890s are mostly thick, white, glacÚ and with gold decoration. The questuin that we have is do all the dolls here belong to the boy or are they studio props. We tend to think that they are studio props because it seems unlikely that mutter would have dragged all those dolls to the studio.

Props were an important part of a photographic studio. Many studios had their own stock props. We have little actual information on this, but it presumably varied greatly from studuo to studio. Studios at beach resorts might have toy buckets and shovels for the children. Some even had a pile of sand. In other instances the customers appear to have brought their own props to the studio so prized possessions would be in the photograph. This was often the case for children who enjoyed being photographed with a prized possession. The props chosen thus can provide fascinating information about the child. They can also provide clues as to gender, often difficult to determine in unidentified 19th century portraits. The problem is that we have no idea if the props in a portrait are studio props or props that belonged to the individuals photographed. This is important because it affects how we interpret the significance of the props.

Studio Props

Props were an important part of a photographic studio. Many studios had their own stock props. We have little actual information on this, but it presumably varied greatly from studuo to studio. Studios at beach resorts might have toy buckets and shovels for the children. Some even had a pile of sand. A 19th century professional photographer would have a number of props in his studio. While some parents may bring along a favorite toy or an older child select to bring one, not all subjects came with props. Thus a good photographer would have some handy.

Subject Props

In other instances the customers appear to have brought their own props to the studio so prized possessions would be in the photograph. This was often the case for children who enjoyed being photographed with a prized possession.

Studio Experiences

We have not yet been able to find written accounts from 19th century studios. A HBC contributor offers some personal experience in this matter. "Once, while taking a short break from graduate school, I found a job filling out tax returns in a department store in San Francisco. During this time a photographer setup shop next to my location and photographed children for a week. The store had a promotion to lure in customers by offering cheap protraits of their children. One day a woman brought in a 4-year old child with long curly hair and wearing a girl's coat. Despite the coat and hair the child looked like a boy to me. I guess the photographer thought the same because when their turn came he asked the woman whether the child was a boy or a girl. She replied boy. By this time the photographer and I had become friendly and we would take a 2 pm lunch together. During lunch I asked him if he always enquired as to the gender of his subjects. He said no but sometimes it was hard to tell and he couldn't very well photograph a boy with a parasol or doll. Remember, this was the early 1970s and lots of little kids in San Francisco, both boys and girls, had long hair and wore the same shirts and blue jeans. Anyway, I found out that photographers had one set of props for girls and another for boys and they were careful not to mix them up."

Interprepation

The props chosen thus can provide fascinating information about the child. The problem is that we have no idea if the props in a portrait are studio props or props that belonged to the individuals photographed. This is important because it affects how we interpret the significance of the props.

Gender clues

Props can provide clues as to gender, often difficult to determine in unidentified 19th century portraits. The props held by a child are often clues as to gender. Some are better clues than others. Some props wwre suitable for both boys and girls and thus offer littleuseful information. Other props, however, have clear gender conotations. Some may have been specifically stress the gender of a boy with curls that had not yet been breeched. HBC points out that there are no sure fire rules here. Props are good indicators, but are not surefire indicators. They are useful, but need to be viewed within ther context of all the infornmation avaialble or observeavle about any particular portrait. Some parents would bring items from home to the studio. Often children would want to be pictured with treasured items. Photographers would also have props at the studio that could be used in the photograph. The props would be choosen them to fit the gender of his subject. A 19th century photographer would presumably not want to offend a Mother or Father by photographing their child with a gender inappropriate prop. A father might object if his son were photographed holding a doll even if the child happened to be wearing a dress. Some Mothers might think this was cute but the photographer would be a fool to do this on his own. Likewise he wouldn't be photographing a girl with a whip or cane.

Chronolgical clues

Props can also be useful in dating old photographs. HBC has compiled some indicators that I think will prove helpful in dating old photographs. This is, however, just some prelimimary thoughts on the matter. I'd be very interested in your reaction to my thoughts and any additional thoughts that you can suggest. This page deals with dating images in general, not only photographs, but also drawings and paintings. We have stressed dating photographs because in many cases drawing and apintings can be dated. Drawing often appeared in periodcal magazines or other dated publications. Often the date a painter executed one of his works are known. Large numbers of photographs, unfortunately are undated. We note several different ways in which the dates of these photographs can be estimated. These results are of course not definitive, but can be useful in the absence of an actual date. The indicators that we have noted relate to both photography, activity, and fashion. The primary indicators that we suggest are photographic technology, portrait styles, photographic props, activity depicted, clothing styles, and hair styles.

Popularity

The question arises as to why small children were so commonly photographed with a prop. There seem to be variety of possibilities. I have never seen any period written material on these topics.
Indicator: Was the prop consciously used for the expressed purpose of indicating gender? HBC is dubious about this. The portrait was taken for relatives and friends, all of whom would have known the gender. Perhsps iy was more to make a statement.
Parents: Perhaps the parents wanted to stress the boy's gender as he might wear a dress or still have curls. Again HBC is skeptical. If mother felt this way, she mightnot dress the boy in dresses or kepp him in curls. Od course the parent involved as most likely to be the father. However as younger boys in pants akso had crops, this seems unlikely.
Fidgiting: Perhaps the photographer suggested a prop to distract the boy somewhat a keep him from fiditing. Thus the photograoher may have no interest in signalling gender, but did not inadveredly by selecting gender appropriate items. During that period of time, photographs needed time exposures and the subject had to be still for the picture to be taken. The prop was probably used to distract the child.
Interest: Perhaps the boy himself liked the idea of bring along a favorite toy or hobbyhorse. This may have put the child at ease and made it easier to get a natural portrait.








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Created: 12:53 AM 1/21/2006
Last updated: 12:53 AM 1/21/2006