With almost everybody these days carrying a camera-equipped cell phone and posting fresh images to social media hourly, it is difficult to remember a time when photographs were rare, expensive, and inconvenient. Cincinnati’s photography studios caught our citizenry at their best and their worst and sometimes at their weirdest.
In the 1880s, for example, it was common to print a photographic portrait on a person’s skin. Young women often had pictures of their beaux fixed on an upper arm or lower leg. One Cincinnati photographer told a reporter for the Times-Star [30 July 1884] about a young woman who was infatuated with a traveling salesman:
“We can photograph on flesh very nicely now and I made a good print. I fixed it thoroughly and she went away happy. A month later she came back with blushes and wanted it taken off. Her lover had turned out to be a married man, and of course she hated him for his cruel deception. However, she wears it yet, as I told her to let it wear off.”
Photographs could serve to bring couples together, the photographer said, describing a rather unusual request he had received from a young woman.
“A woman, handsome and determined, had a picture made holding a pistol to her head, as if about to suicide. This she sent to her lover, who was probably getting tired of her. Underneath the picture she wrote: ‘If you don’t, I will.’ He understood. It had its effect, for in two weeks I made a group picture of them both, and she was attired as a bride.”
Women, it seems, made the most outlandish requests of photographers. One Cincinnati portraitist told the Post [7 September 1883] that women regularly requested photos of one foot, or one hand, set against a backdrop of black velvet. Women particularly proud of their hair arranged for photos from behind to show their mane in all its glory. Other women had photos from the rear for an entirely different reason:
“Some girls, who have caught on to an unknown correspondent, through an advertisement, get the backs of their heads or a coquettish corner of their faces pictured to send them.”
Some photographers produced images that went way beyond the coquettish. A studio owner told the Cincinnati Penny Paper [16 October 1882] about a colleague of his who was just starting out in the business and had yet to engage a suitable number of clients. One day, a young man stopped by to inquire whether the photographer had any photos of nude women for sale. The photographer did not, but asked the young man to return in a couple of days.
“Soon as his customer left he called his wife and told her he wanted to take her nude and sell it. She hesitated at first, but finally consented to sit. She had an exquisite figure, and the young man, who had never met the lady, was so well pleased with the photographs that he bought a dozen. He showed them to his friends, who purchased more, and finally the photographer’s income from selling his wife’s nude photographs became the most lucrative part of his business.”
The Penny Paper reporter asked his source whether the wife knew how widely distributed her nude image had become.
“Oh yes, but she does not care a copper. She laughingly said one day, ‘It is dollars and cents to me, and as long as the public like my form, I will sell them copies of it.”
The unidentified photographer probably sold his wife’s images from under the counter, because Cincinnati wasn’t ready for nude photographs. In 1890, George Morrison and Frank Jennings, photographers based in the West End, were hauled into court on charges of making obscene pictures of young women from the area—otherwise known as the Red Light District. According to the Cincinnati Post [18 October 1890] the judge ruled that testimony in the case was “too filthy to be heard” and fined the pair heavily.
It’s a bit ironic, because another photographer told the Post [7 September 1883] that “bad” women generally requested “respectable” pictures:
“To tell the truth, their pictures are more modest than many of the society belles of upper tendom.”
The women of that “upper tendom,” the high-society classes, posed provocatively, leaning seductively forward with bare arms and a plunging neckline.
“Why, here is one young girl who had my wife photograph her in her chimise. Her father got hold of the pictures at home, and burned them, then forbade me making any more prints.”
Perhaps the most bizarre photographs taken in Cincinnati involved dead people. A woman showed up one day at a photographer’s studio pushing an infant in a baby carriage. The infant had died hours earlier and the mother wanted a photograph to remember the child. The photographer admitted that photographing corpses was “not nice work.”
“We sometimes make post-mortem pictures, but don’t hanker for it. We have made a picture of a corpse, and by retouching both the negative and the print made it life-like—eyes open, and color in the cheeks. But photographing a corpse is almost as bad as shaving one.”
One might think photographing dead people would give the photographer a bit of advantage because corpses wouldn’t move during the long exposures required back then. It turns out that photographers, at least in Cincinnati, were slow to adopt newer and faster photographic processes. A photographer in 1884 complained that his subjects couldn’t sit still for the thirty seconds it took to capture their image. He wondered how their parents endured the four or five minutes of immobility required for a good Daguerreotype portrait, while admitting that he was aware the latest plates allowed exposures of one-thousandth of a second. The American Israelite [21 January 1881] was having none of it:
“They can instantly photograph express trains going at sixty miles an hour, so that it looks, smoke and all, as if it were taken at a stand-still. And yet they can’t or won’t photograph a man sitting in a chair, without screwing his head round in a vice like a moveable doll and keeping him looking at a smudge on the wall, till his lip drops, and his eyes water, and the pleasant little speech he meant to think about, just to hold the expression, goes maundering through his head like the ghost of a homeless echo. Every ‘photographer’s studio’ must be at least twenty years behind time. Why is it?”