In almost all of the photographs we’ve looked at this semester, class plays a major role. It determines who is in the photo, and how the photo is used, among other things. It seems that even though photography was democratized, readily available for all, there was still a clear distinction between the way photographs of the wealthy and the poor were used.
One of the first forms of photography we considered was police photography, and the use of mug shots. The collection of mug shots led some photographers to try composite photography, in which they layered mug shots of different criminals on top of each other to get the “average” of the group. Thus, they could isolate features common to criminals. While these composite photographs were never actually used by legal authorities, they carried the threat of a justification for eugenics, because if you can isolate the features that are common in criminals, why not just stop people with those characteristics from reproducing?
Similarly, many travelers and explorers photographically documented the native people they encountered while abroad. They tried to find exemplars of the native groups’ physical features, to serve as the standard for those ethnic groups. In this way, people who stayed in Britain were able to see what people from distant lands looked like.
Again, in Thomson’s book, Victorian London Street Life, we saw examples of different types of people that you might encounter on the street. While there were sometimes personal stories to go along with the photographs, many were impersonal. The photographs were also staged, suggesting that there was a certain look that Thomson wanted the people to have. Rather than looking like individuals, they seem to be reduced to types.
I don’t believe that we have seen this with the middle and upper classes. There hasn’t been a photo that shows us what a typical doctor looks like, or what we should expect a member of the House of Lords to look like. Their photographs seem much more individualized. This becomes very clear when looking at the photocollages in Elizabeth Siegel’s Playing with Pictures, where we’re shown pictures of people mixed with drawing or painting meant to exaggerate an individual’s personality or other features.
It seems that the middle and upper classes tried to keep portraiture as a sign of wealth, even as photography became more common and accessible than painting. By reducing photographs of the lower class to types, and retaining individuality in their own photographs, they were able to maintain a separation between the classes.