During photography’s infancy – from 1839 up to the Civil War – having your photograph taken was a serious matter that probably occurred only once in your lifetime You would put on your best clothes, go to the photographer’s studio on a sunny day, sit very still for the long exposure time, often with your head in a brace to keep from moving. No wonder so many early subjects look terrified.
But toward the end of the 19th century, exposure times were shorter, photographer’s studios were everywhere and the cost was lower, so people started joking in their photos. Victorians thought it was hilarious to cross-dress for the photographer—men wearing large flowered hats, women in derbys and cutaways.
A while back I did a series of tinted cards called “Vintage Fashion Victims” and "More Vintage Fashion Victims", based on photos of Victorian women in outrageous or funny garb. But men could look even more ridiculous for the photographer, as you can see here.
The four men above are, I think, all actors recreating their best roles. The two cabinet cards by W. L. Shoemaker, of Phoenixville, Pa. showing men dressed as royalty? or courtiers? , were probably used to advertise the thespians, the way headshots are today, or they were collected by their fans. In pencil on the back of the guy with the mustache is “George Leister.” The man without the mustache is identified in pencil on the back as “Walter Shoemaker” –which I realized is also the last name of the photographer. Could it be a photograph he took of himself in fancy dress?
The “clown” photo, taken by “The Popular Studio” in Haverhill, MA., has no ID on the back, but his ragged clothes suggest he is playing a hobo/clown role—probably in vaudeville.
The long, skinny cabinet card of a man dressed in velvet clothing, big lace collar, flower over his ear, lost in a book—is the cliché of a poet, undoubtedly another theatrical role.
While the men above are dressed for the theater, I think this skater, photographed in Boston, may be seriously trying to commemorate his skill on the ice. (Remember that all these photos are taken inside a photographer’s studio, with props and painted background to suggest they’re outdoors.)
This carefully posed gentleman, with his rifle and faithful dog, photographed in Dresden by a photographer named Otto Mayer, is definitely not being funny. With his cigar in his mouth and his hunting clothes, he knows he is the picture of the intrepid hunter.
Now this guy, whom I call “The Leaning Man” is definitely trying to be funny with the props he found in the photographer’s studio. This is a “real photo” post card, which may be later-- into the 1900’s-- than the cabinet cards.
The leaning man looks a lot to me like this fellow, jauntily wearing a lady’s hat for his calling-card-sized tintype. They’re probably not the same person, but they have a similar sense of humor, and probably both could be counted on to be the life of the party, even if it meant wearing a lampshade on their head.