Sad eyed men in history

What is it about old portrait photography that reaches out and grabs me by the throat?

This image to the right has had me in a death grip for days now.

It’s a self portrait. The very first “light picture,” as it says on the back. Robert Cornelius, a chemist and silversmith in Philadephia, snapped this image of himself outside his father’s shop one afternoon in October, 1839.

That’s 1839, in case you missed it.

Our man Robert here was a sort of consulting scientist to an early daguerreotype enthusiast who wanted to find a way to shorten the length of exposure needed to create a lasting image. At the time, folks thought you couldn’t take human portraits using this emerging bit of technology, because you needed an exposure time of an hour or more.

Not only was it highly unlikely that a human subject could sit still for that long, and avoid the ubiquitous blurring seen in images from this time, but given the amount of light needed on the subject’s face, there were concerns of causing blindness.

Robert devised a solution to the problem, then tested it out in the bright sun of a Philadelphia street.

I love the immediacy of his pose, the wind ruffling his hair, the impatience in his eyes and in his crossed arms.

Let’s get this over with, let’s just see if this works. If it doesn’t then I’ll try something else.

I think that’s one reason why I love this image so much. He’s not interested in the slightest in how he looks in the resulting photograph. He’s got other things on his mind.

Will this work? I’ve got a million other things to do. Let’s get this done.

I think that’s the thing that draws me in so hard. There’s no vanity, no stilted pose, no barely concealed fear of the camera and its all-seeing gaze.

The man’s got other things on his mind. And it makes you wonder what they are.

In contrast, think about the stiff, formal photography of the Victorian-era carte de visite that we’re all familiar with. People sat for portraits for cartes de visites because they needed to, because it was a social necessity. The vast majority of them clearly dreaded the experience. And you can see their discomfort in every carefully held head, every awkwardly averted glance, every sucked-in, corseted gut and plastered down strand of hair.

There’s still a lot of that in portrait photography today, in fact.

But the historical photographs that speak the most to me are of people who clearly have more important things on their minds. Usually this takes the form of a politician, or a war general, or something of that sort. These gentlemen had much more pressing matters to concern them, and the emotional toll of these pressing matters easily overcomes any fear or formalism in their poses.

For instance, I have a long-standing and well-documented love affair with Ulysses S. Grant.

I won’t go into all the details of why I feel so deeply for him. We can talk about that another time, if you’d like.

But can you look into those eyes, and then away again, without knowing something of what weighs him down?

He is not thinking about the camera. He is not thinking about how he looks.

Even in his more formal White House portraits, where he has clearly been posed to within an inch of his life, he is already out the door and down the street, in his mind. Off doing other things.

But despite my well-known predilection for men in emotional pain, I have readily enough made space in my heart for the impatient, preoccupied, and ultimately mysterious Robert Cornelius.

In the photo, he is thirty years old. In a year or two, he will open one, then another daguerreotype studio in Philadelphia, before moving on to other pursuits and withdrawing entirely from view.

But he still glares at us ferociously from that one sunny afternoon in the autumn of 1839.

And he is so real to me.

Hat tip to Two Nerdy History Girls for introducing me to Robert Cornelius in the first place. What have you done.

7 Thoughts.

  1. i came across that photo of robert cornelius in a book on the history of photography and had that same gut reaction — kind of a connection over the centuries. plus that, let’s face it. he’s kind of super-dreamy-handsome, right?

  2. That’s one of my favorite photos too. I think it’s easier to make a connection with the people of the past when they’re relaxed and natural in pictures, as opposed to stiff and formal. I have pictures of two of my ancestors, and the one of my ggggg grandmother is uncomfortable and unexpressive, and I can’t really get an emotional feel for her through it, even though I know she was incredible and courageous with lots of spunk. The picture of my gggg grandfather, on the other hand, is very easy for me to connect with. He’s in his Civil War uniform and has impeccible posture (quite alot like my dad, actually), but he’s looking straight at the camera with something like boyish confidence and just looks warm, friendly and welcoming. And I feel like I know him. So I think that the more expressive the sitter is, the easier it is to feel a connection to the past.

    P.S. I agree with the last comment, he was a very good looking man. 😉

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  4. A fabulous self-portrait, indeed. Such a modern-looking young man, yet one who has not known anything of trains or airplanes or cars – only horse and ship in his day. One feels one could converse with him, but his would be an entirely different style of speech, and a modern person would have to modify natural discourse to a more polite, if not formal, style. Quite haunting, to see such an active, vital-looking individual from 172 years ago!

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