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Some photographers pose their subjects, others capture people in candid moments. Sometimes, it's hard to tell the difference.

Modern Portraits

Explore how early modern painters pushed the boundaries of traditional portraiture.

Untitled (Mother and Daughter)

William J. Shew
(American, 1820–1903)

1855. Daguerreotype, 2 3/4 x 2 1/4" (7 x 5.7 cm)

American photographer William J. Shew, who owned his own daguerreotype studio in Boston, took this portrait of a mother and her daughter. Produced without a negative, daguerreotypes are direct positive prints, in that the image forms directly on the plates of silver or silver coated copper that were used in this early photographic process. Since these plates were not as light-sensitive as film, which had not been invented yet, they needed ample exposure time. As a result, subjects had to remain still before the camera for prolonged periods in order for their image to come out clearly. They were often aided in this uncomfortable requirement by chairs fitted with devices to hold their head and back in place, which could cause them to appear like the mother and daughter in this image: formally or stiffly posed, with serious facial expressions.

With the advent of photography, posing for a portrait—once reserved for artists’ models and wealthy patrons—became a part of the broader modern experience. For a relatively low cost, the average working person could go to a studio and have a portrait made of themselves and their loved ones for posterity. But while daguerreotype portraits were less expensive and more accessible than painted ones, because they are unique, they have come to be considered singular and precious.

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

The way a figure is positioned.

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

A previously exposed and developed photographic film or plate showing an image that, in black-and-white photography, has a reversal of tones (for example, white eyes appear black). In color photography, the image is in complementary colors to the subject (for example, a blue sky appears yellow). The transfer of a negative image to another surface results in a positive image.

Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.

1. A detailed three-dimensional representation, usually built to scale, of another, often larger, object. In architecture, a three-dimensional representation of a concept or design for a building; 2. A person who poses for an artist.

A photographic term referring to a positive image made directly by exposure to light and by development without the use of a negative. In a direct positive print an image is produced on a surface and then treated chemically to imitate the tonal range of nature.

A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.

The action of exposing a photographic film to light or other radiation.

A photographic technique invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839. A daguerreotype uses a silver or silver-coated-copper plate to develop an image in a camera obscura. The image is formed when the light-sensitive plate is exposed to light through a camera lens. A daguerreotype was a unique, direct positive image that could not produce copies.

Photography Is Announced
In 1839, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre announced to members of the French Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Fine Arts that he had developed an invention for making pictures. For the first time in history, through a mechanical and chemical process, people could see the world and themselves captured on the silvery surface of light-sensitized plates, which were called daguerreotypes after his last name.