Posing for the Lens


Have you noticed of late how compulsively casual people have become in front of the camera? A quick trip through flickr sometimes makes me cringe at the uninhibited stances or the provocative poses, gestures and openly outrageous and, often, obscene antics others assume with an assuredness and aplomb that’s baffling. Is no one self conscious anymore? Even in portraiture, people are encouraged to relax for a more honest and open view. It’s a far cry from the days when photography was in the hands of the few and precision, cost, legacy and lineage were serious matters.

Take the photograph above for example. It is 1854 and Henry James Jr., the future eminent novelist, is only 11 years old. He stands beside his seated father, Henry Sr., a somewhat portly, bearded man resting his hands atop a cane, an appurtenance necessitated by the wooden leg that replaced the one he lost in a fire as a boy. The two Jameses are posed for a daguerreotype in the New York City studio of Mathew Brady, who several years later would make his place in history with powerful photographs of the Civil War.

In Brady’s placid father-son portrait, the younger James wears a military-looking jacket, its nine buttons fastened right up to the collar, and holds a wide-brimmed straw hat with a ribbon encircling the crown. The most telling detail, however, is the way the boy, who stood on a box for the picture, casually rests a forearm on his father’s shoulder.

“It illustrates how people posing for portraits in the nineteenth century tried to convey their status, character, and modernity in pictures,” says Robin Kelsey, Loeb associate professor of the humanities. “The pose conveys the extent to which the elder James was a progressive and permissive parent—he grants his son an autonomy and authority that was quite unusual at the time. Most portraits of that era establish the father as the patriarch in no uncertain terms.”

Harvard Magazine



~ by eaesthete on 01/13/09.

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