People and Props in Photography, 1840s-1940s takes a close look at seven photographs that reflect various technical processes utilized during the first century of the medium history. Despite their differences, these photographs also function as a coherent group, as the individuals portrayed in them are all accompanied by props—some conventional, some unexpected—that shape in important ways the personal and social significance of these images, as well as their aesthetic appeal. While the slide show below uses the prop as a lens through which to reflect on how identities are visually conveyed, the essays published under “Research” offer more in-depth analyses of each object, in many cases supported by archival sources unpublished until now. As such, the essays expand our historical understanding of the photographs, and as a collection of texts they invite readers to consider the categories of the vernacular and the artistic when thinking about photography.

Curated by candidates in the MA in Art History program, People and Props in Photography, 1840s-1940s is an online companion to the exhibition Time and Face: Daguerreotypes to Digital Prints, curated by Roberto C. Ferrari, on view at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University from December 4, 2021 to March 12, 2022. This gallery exhibition focuses on formal portraiture and figurative works in photojournalism and documentary photography, showcasing over 100 examples of vernacular photography and work by well-known photographers from the 1840s to the twenty-first century. Time and Face is the first large-scale exhibition drawn exclusively from the photography collection in Art Properties, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library. As part of the educational mission of the collection and exhibition, the MA candidates selected photographs on view in the show, which resulted in People and Props, which thus supports the Wallach exhibition while also standing as its own independent project.

– Frédérique Baumgartner and Roberto C. Ferrari

Henry Pollock (1810-ca. 1890)
Two Women Holding a Book
Quarter-plate daguerreotype with hand-applied color and gilt
Case, open: 4 5/8 x 7 3/8 x 3/8 in. (11.8 x 18.8 x 1.1 cm)
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
Columbia University
Gift of Robert Shlaer and M. Susan Barger (2019.11.005)

This cased daguerreotype was produced by Henry Pollock, a photographer active from 1849 to 1889. Born in Washington, D.C., Pollock opened his first daguerreotype studio in 1849 in Baltimore at 147 Lexington Street before moving to a new location—155 Baltimore Street—in 1850. The embossed velvet pad in the case corresponds to the inscription format Pollock used on Lexington Street, which, along with the sitters’ fashion, dates the daguerreotype to 1849–50. The two sitters, one holding a book, both wear an abundance of jewelry which has been gilded and hand-painted to enhance their appearance. While it is unknown whether these accessories were supplied by Pollock’s studio or brought from the home, these sitters intended to inscribe social identity through the (literal) highlighting of their jewels.

Christopher C. Schoonmaker (ca. 1830-1903)
A Lady
Late 1850s
Sixth-plate daguerreotype with hand-applied color and gilt
Case, open: 3 3/4 x 6 1/2 x 3/8 in. (9.5 x 16.5 x 1.1 cm)
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
Columbia University
Gift of Robert Shlaer and M. Susan Barger (2019.11.012)

In the mid-nineteenth century, Albany-based photographer and entrepreneur Christopher C. Schoonmaker set up shop at 282 River Street in Troy, New York, where he developed a prosperous business creating and selling photographs to those who wished to preserve their likenesses for years to come. Among surviving examples of Schoonmaker’s production is this cased daguerreotype of a seated woman, made in the late 1850s. The woman, her name unknown to us today, arrived at the Troy studio adorned with jewelry and dressed in the fashionable clothing of the time. In the context of Schoonmaker’s photographic studio, these added features acted as props to capture the sitter’s identity, one that emphasized wealth, status, and worldliness.

Photographer unknown
Class of 1860, Department of Chemistry, Columbia College
Ca. 1857–60
Salted paper print
14 x 17 in. (36 x 43 cm)
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
Columbia University
Chandler Chemical Museum Collection (C00.1580.093)

This photograph of the first chemistry class at Columbia, also including Professor Charles Joy and his laboratory assistant, stages the men around an array of props relating to chemistry. The photograph was part of Joy’s efforts to establish a properly funded, practice-oriented chemistry department at Columbia. It reportedly remained on his desk for twenty years, later entering Professor Charles Chandler’s Chemistry Museum on campus, and was proudly showed to all the incoming students to remind them of the humble beginnings of the department. While the students in the photograph have been identified, the name of the young Black man, Joy’s laboratory assistant, remains unknown despite extensive (and still ongoing) research. It is significant to note, however, that his inclusion in this group portrait reinforces his important role as part of Professor Joy’s inaugural chemistry class.

Photographers unknown
Twelve Portraits of Women and Men
Ca. 1862
Albumen print cartes de visite mounted on board
Overall: 12 3/8 x 10 in. (31.5 x 25.4 cm)
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
Columbia University
Chandler Chemical Museum Collection (C00.1580.019a-l)

Dated from the early 1860s, these cartes de visite (CDVs) were produced during the height of “cartomania,” the period in which the dissemination of CDVs was at its most popular. Invented by A. A. E. Disdéri, the CDV was a palm-sized, card-mounted photograph that could be inexpensively printed as multiple copies from a single negative. As a result of the CDV’s lower cost and technical innovations, portrait photography became available to a wider range of consumers. Both the studios responsible for these CDV portraits and the identities of their subjects remain unknown. Each CDV is filled with props, such as the armchair and parasol, which studios relied upon to signify their subjects’ alignment with middle-class taste. The reuse of props for multiple sitters contributed to the CDV’s characteristic visual uniformity.

Mike Disfarmer (1884–1959)
Darlene Teal, Age 2 Years
Gelatin silver print
4 9/16 x 2 7/8 in. (11.6 x 7.4 cm)
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
Columbia University
Gift of Hugh and Sandra Lawson (2015.13.045)
Mike Disfarmer (1884–1959)
Evaleon and Gene Higgs
Gelatin silver print
3 13/16 x 2 3/4 in. (9.7 x 7 cm)
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
Columbia University
Gift of Hugh and Sandra Lawson (2015.13.047)

Photographed during the 1930s and 1940s, these children’s portraits were made by the American photographer Mike Disfarmer in his Heber Springs, Arkansas studio. The young sitters wear their Sunday best while their expressions—compulsory smiles and a marked frown—indicate the universal vexation experienced by children and their parents in the making of a good portrait. Rather than placing the children in a chair or on their parents’ laps, where their small size could be emphasized, Disfarmer sets them precariously on the edge of a wooden table, one of very few props in his studio that is often seen in his children’s portraits. By doing this, Disfarmer seems to transform the status of the child-portrait, alluding to the place of the photograph itself as a prop to be displayed and cherished within the home of each subject.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902–2002)
". . . Un pez que llaman Sierra" (". . . A Fish Called Saw"), from the portfolio Photographs by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
Photographed 1942–44, printed 1977
Gelatin silver print
10 x 8 in. (25.4 x 20.3 cm)
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library
Columbia University
Gift of Mr. Martin Pomp (1978.12.002.07)

Mexico’s most famous twentieth-century photographer, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, had a career that spanned more than eighty years. Primarily working in Mexico City, Bravo photographed everyday life while exploring concepts of gender identity, class tension, and indigenism. His work has often been associated by photohistorians with Surrealism for its anti-picturesque aesthetic that employs irony, unexpected motifs, and antithetical scenery. In this photograph, a young girl holds a Mexican Sierra or “saw” fish while gazing contemplatively into the distance. Making visible an uncommon perspective on the lives of Mexican people with images that counteracted expectation, the significance of the fish as a prop is as purposeful as it is indecipherable. Álvarez Bravo’s aesthetic is one of interpretive defiance.