Hypervisibility: Early Photography and Privacy in North America, 1839–1900

May 15–Aug 3
    Joseph Henry Stringer, [Woman’s hand holding an infant], ca. 1875 (albumen print). Courtesy of The Image Centre. Gift of Dr. Martin J. Bass and Gail Silverman Bass
Joseph Henry Stringer, [Woman’s hand holding an infant], ca. 1875 (albumen print). Courtesy of The Image Centre. Gift of Dr. Martin J. Bass and Gail Silverman Bass

Given the current ubiquity of cameras and the broad circulation of photographs in this digital age, photography can be understood as a threat to privacy. But even in its earliest forms—from daguerreotypes, cartes de visite, and stereographs to commercial advertising—the medium triggered both excitement and concerns about heightened visibility. Photography carried various risks and rewards based on gender, race, class, and disability. This exhibition considers some of those aspects, as it traces the fascinating interrelated and overlooked histories of photography and privacy in the 19th century.

Édouard de Beaumont, Prises… Au Daguerréotype. Ah!… Clarisse… Vois donc cette grande machine… On dirait qu’il y a un œil qui nous regarde!, 1859 (lithograph with applied colour (facsimile)). Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum, Gift of Eastman Kodak Company, ex-collection Gabriel Cromer

The age of photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumed as such, publicly.

— Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980)

The announcement of photography in 1839 and the subsequent and massive production of images had an immediate impact on personal privacy. While the early experience of being photographed and the exchange of small cased images suggested a personal and intimate relationship to the medium, there is extensive evidence that photography was still able to leave subjects feeling exposed.

From its earliest forms, photography enabled realistic representations of faces and bodies to be seen in private and public spaces, a process that triggered both thrill and concern. Strikingly lifelike photographs were a novelty to mid-19th century viewers and many were eager to share and collect photographs. Cameras came to be understood as tools that allowed people to watch and “capture” others. As the practice of photography became more affordable, and improved technology made the taking of pictures easier and more accessible, people had to learn to navigate the disappearing boundary between public visibility and private life.

Hypervisibility traces the interconnected history of photography and privacy in the nineteenth century. With a focus on North America and the United Kingdom from 1840 to 1900, the objects in this exhibition highlight the initial risks and rewards of being photographed and sharing images of oneself. Six sections show how photography shaped popular ideas about privacy through personal uses of the medium, its commercial potentialities, and its pivotal role as a technology used extensively by governments. These examples illustrate how, in the post-industrial age, privacy is rooted in our ability to control our own visibility, mediated by power and experienced differently depending on our personal identities and social position—issues still relevant today.

Section 1: Out of the Box

The earliest widely available photographs—daguerreotypes—were typically kept in closed cases, because the silver nitrate on the metal plates used to capture the image would tarnish with prolonged exposure to the open air. These ornate velvet-lined cases also had a second purpose: protecting the image from being seen without the owner’s permission. Other early-19th-century photographic objects were intended to be viewed more widely, acting as mementos. Brooches, charms, and other three-dimensional displays put portraits on view—many of these objects were made to be worn on the body or were otherwise mobile, designed to be flaunted.

Henry Sandham, Reception Room, William Notman Studio, Montreal, 1872 (lithograph (facsimile)). Courtesy of the McCord Museum, Montreal

Section 2: Selling Faces

. . . even the cartes de visite of comparatively unknown persons so completely picture their appearance, that when we meet the originals we seem to have some acquaintance with them. “I know that face, somehow,” is the instinctive cognition, and then we recall the portrait we have a day or two past seen in the windows.

— Andrew Wynter, Littell’s Living Age (1862)

For most people in the mid-1800s, securing a portrait meant entering the commercial space of a professional studio. Sitters were not just paying clients—by commissioning their own portraits, they generated images that became products for sale, gift, or exchange. By the end of the 1840s, steep competition among portrait photographers motivated them to display their images and advertise their skills to potential clients. Evidence suggests that studios did not necessarily seek consent before putting portraits on display.

Though portraits first came in the form of daguerreotypes—one-of-a-kind objects made through a direct-positive process, in which light directly strikes a metal plate covered in silver nitrate solution—those photographs were still reproducible. Multiples were common, whether generated by the photographer at the original sitting or produced later as duplicates, ordered by the sitter or a third party. Copies could also be ordered by others, and leave the studio without the sitter’s knowledge. With the arrival of the wet collodion process in 1851, studios retained their original negatives and could easily produce new prints. Over time, these negatives and multiple prints formed expansive, relatively unsecured studio archives.

Section 3: Summoned into Public View

For the average person, having one’s portrait taken seemed like a simple act of self-representation, however, the extent to which every portrait entered a commons—whether that be a network of exchange, a commercial or governmental archive, or a public display—meant it could never be viewed as simply an image of oneself. Each portrait located the self within a family, industry, community, or some alternative hierarchical structure. Group portraits, sometimes comprising an amalgamation of individual portraits, show the comparative and associational nature of photography, subordinating each subject’s sense of individual identity to that of the whole, and opening collective identities to much more exacting public scrutiny. From the 1850s on, submitting one’s portrait became a requirement for participation in many aspects of public and commercial life, from yearbooks to passports and other forms of identification, to running for political office.

Fears about being photographed were linked to widespread anxiety about misidentification and the possibility of false accusations. Beyond the fact that the camera threatened to expose what the subject did not want seen—be it a bad hair day or an inauspicious aspect of one’s personal life—images, once separated from their subject, often entered official and commercial systems over which even the most privileged sitters had little control.

Roger Fenton, Lieutenant General George Brown and Staff, 1855 (salted paper print). Courtesy of The Image Centre, Gift of Christopher Varley, 2020

Section 4: Tracking Identity

The display of portraits in groups, which became more common over time, demonstrated the power of photography to affect public perceptions of others. In these examples, individual privacy was breeched when the images were made public—some in order for government entities to track and maintain power over their citizens, and others in commemoration of a national trauma. In each case, the perceived needs of a community were deemed to supersede individual rights to privacy.

At the end of the American Civil War, the US government made a remarkable exception to the privacy of the mail when it collected abandoned photographs of Civil War soldiers, lost in the mail, and displayed them in a government building. The ostensible purpose was to find the letters’ intended recipients, but the display served to foster public memorialization of the war effort. At the same historical moment, photographic portraits began appearing on wanted posters. They advertised the identity of suspects and fugitives, calling upon citizens to participate in community surveillance in aid of police powers. They also shamed the subjects, suggesting their guilt and marking them as enemies of the state.

City of New York, [Broadside for the capture of William C. Murray and Ada Shreve], 1873 (Ink on paper with two albumen prints (wanted poster)). Courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives

Section 5: Fixed by a Curious Gaze

During the 19th century, photographs provided an unprecedented window into ways of life around the world. Mass-produced images in the forms of stereographs or albumen prints offered realistic portrayals of global art and architecture or distant sites, and their inhabitants could be gazed upon by viewers who had never had direct contact with those places or people. As these images entered domestic spaces to be shared, commercial photographers began filling the demand for such images, thus shifting existing understandings of private and public life.

James Inglis, Brown House, Montreal, 1866–1884 (albumen prints mounted on card (stereograph)). Courtesy of The Image Centre. Gift of Dr. Martin J. Bass and Gail Silverman Bass

Notably, the American and Canadian photographers making these ethnographic and travel pictures—mostly white men—imposed colonialist viewpoints through their representations. As such, they influenced the dynamic between photographer and subject. Some imitated scientific methodologies, as in the motion studies of American photographer Eadweard Muybridge, while French photographer Jean Potteau’s ethnographic portraits of international dignitaries, taken in his Paris studio, followed the front-and-side-view format of mug shots.

Section 6: Surreptitious Pictures

By the end of the 19th century, the development of halftone printing and the spreading use of handheld cameras had vastly increased photographic production and circulation. While halftone printing enabled newspapers and magazines to integrate detailed photographic reproductions with text, mobile cameras made surreptitious picture taking relatively easy, and generated a whole new set of public anxieties about photography.

Eastman Company, [Advertisement for the Kodak camera], ca. 1890 (lithograph (facsimile)). Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum, Gift of Eastman Kodak Company

In 1890, the social impact of a burgeoning and increasingly visual mass media prompted future US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and lawyer Samuel D. Warren to call for a “right to privacy.” Existing law protected private property and copyright, but did not name an explicit right to personal privacy, so the authors cited an eclectic series of English and American cases to argue for its necessity. Brandeis and Warren’s article ushered in the legal idea of privacy as “the right to be left alone,” and linked transgression of this right to emotional injury. In cases they selected to illustrate the potential harms of photography, Brandeis and Warren were particularly concerned about photographic portraits exhibited without consent or used for commercial purposes, causing “mental pain and suffering” as well as “injury of feelings” for the subjects involved. This American call for privacy rights played a role in Canada’s determination of equivalent rights. However, it was only in the 1970s and 1980s that Canadian laws were passed to protect the use of personal information.

Hypervisibility explores photography and privacy, not just as an urgent contemporary issue or a problem that emerged with the handheld camera, but as a formative concern running throughout photography’s long history.

Curated by Sarah Parsons & Frances Dorenbaum

Presented by The Image Centre. This exhibition draws on research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Sarah Parsons is a professor of Art History and Visual Culture at York University. Her research explores the history and theory of photography in relation to questions of ethics and power. In the last ten years, she has published several texts on prolific 19th-century photographer William Notman. She is also co-author of Photography in Canada, 1839–1989: An Illustrated History (2023) with Sarah Bassnett. Hypervisibility is part of a multiyear project, Feeling Exposed: Photography, Privacy, and Visibility in Nineteenth Century North America, supported in part by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Frances Dorenbaum is an independent curator and a PhD candidate in Art History and Visual Culture at York University. Her current research focuses on settler-colonial representations of Canadian national identity in twentieth-century news photographs. Most recently she curated exhibitions at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York and the Chicago History Museum. She was the 2020 Elaine Ling Research Fellow at The Image Centre at Toronto Metropolitan University.