Early Canadian Portrait Photography

Originally Published in Heritage Happenings, January 1982
These articles are reprinted as they were originally published.
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The earliest photographic portrait was known as a daguerreotype. This photograph was taken by exposing a silver-coated copper plate in the camera. This plate is a positive image, not a negative; since no duplicate prints can be made of it, each daguerreotype is unique. The pictures were always covered with a glass to protect their fragile surfaces and the resulting ‘sandwich’ was surrounded by a thin frame, usually gilt, known as a ‘preserver’. Generally they were then put into a small hinged case made of leather, wood or pressed paper and lined with velvet or silk. Many of these cases were decorated with complex geometric patterns; others depicted scenes and are superb examples of the die-sinker’s art. Unfortunately few daguerreotypes have their case of gilt matt stamped with the maker’s name — but one beautiful example at the National Gallery of Canada has the velvet facing embossed with the name: R. Milne, Artist, Hamilton, C.W. Techniques for hand colouring or tinting the images were introduced as early as 1842, and many show such features as pink cheeks and lips, but the colour is often poor and the practice was regarded as pandering to popular taste and was criticised for destroying the essential quality of the photographic image.

An example of a 19th century daguerreotype case. Sourced from Photos of the Past, Flickr.

Daguerreotypes were made public first in France in 1839, and in March of the following year the world’s first portrait studio was opened in New York – this was the first practicable method of photography and it swept America like wildfire. By 1841 several daguerreotypists were advertising in Quebec, Montreal and Toronto; but it was not until late in the decade that there were established professionals in the major centres. In 1848 the British-American Photographic Gallery on King Street East in Toronto advertised “The price of a portrait is now so low that no one need be without a faithful likeness of an honoured parent or beloved child.” Some fine daguerreotype portraits of the late 1840’s exist, but the hey-day of this process was the 1850’s. Almost every town boasted a “Daguerrean Parlour” and every family patronized it – for the daguerreotype had brought portraiture within the reach of all but the poor.

Very similar, and often mistaken for a daguerreotype, is a photograph on a glass plate coated with collodion called an ambrotype. These generally are cased like daguerreotypes, but there is a black background which overcomes the reflecting quality of a daguerreotype; and ambrotypes introduced in the 1850’s were cheaper to make. Like its predecessor, the ambrotype is a unique positive image, not a negative, and cannot be duplicated.

By 1850 there were established “daguerrian artists” in the major cities. Among these daguerreotypists were Eli J. Palmer and Thomas C. Doane. Palmer established a gallery in 1849 in Toronto (corner of King and Church Streets), where he remained in the photographic business for thirty years. He gave up being a practicing photographer about 1870 but continued as an “importer, manufacturer and dealer in photographic materials of every description.” Doane is listed in the Montreal directories from 1847 to 1868. Both men were awarded honourable mention for their daguerreotypes at the Paris Exhibition of 1855. In Hamilton, the first commercial photographer was Robert Milne who operated from 1851 to c.1870.

After 1860, daguerreotypes were virtually obsolete, and there are almost no ambrotypes later than 1865. A modification of the latter continued to be made in large number until the end of the century – popularly called a tintype. For these, the collodion, instead of being coated on glass, was applied to thin black iron plates. The quality of these pictures is not very good – they were scorned by the more fashionable photographers – but nevertheless enjoyed a great popularity. The early tintypes were also put into lined cases; however, as they were practically indestructible, customers recognized that any sort of frame was an unnecessary expense.

Carte-de-visite of Margaret McMonies of Waterdown, c.1870.

Cartes-de-visite were the rage in portrait photographs in the 1860s. Small paper pictures made from wet-plate negatives were mounted on cards 2 ¼” x 3 ½”, or the approximate size of a calling card. The classic carte-de-visite is a full-standing figure of the subject. They were taken throughout Ontario in great numbers and at modest prices during the decade. A positive craze developed for them; they could easily be mailed to relatives and albums designed to contain collections became popular. Portrait photographs of the 60’s relied more and more on surroundings and props. Studios and galleries in the major centres such as Toronto and Hamilton outdid themselves in the lavishness of their decor. “They are palaces,” exclaimed one European visitor, agog at the profusion of marble floors and statuary, rich carpeting and draperies, pedestals, urns, fancy tables, singing birds in gilded cages and painted representations of everything from battlements of a castle to the most improbable classical landscape.

By 1870, the carte-de-visite was no longer fashionable, although it continued to be produced in large numbers by the many photographers equipped to do so. The new portraits, mounted on stiffer cardboard, called cabinet photographs, were the beginning of a trend for larger photographs. But by 1870, the honesty, simplicity and vitality of the early portrait photographers was lost.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1982, 2020


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