Among my favorite subject matter for sketching over the past several years have been cabinet photos. Cabinet photos were a late 19th century print-making process. Photographers took the photos –generally in their shops and they were often used to advertise for the photographer. These photos satisfied the fascination of Victorian era people with access to an emerging technology –photography. The cabinet photo was extraordinarily popular until about the turn of the twentieth century. There are an abundance of them, and they can generally be bought for only a few dollars per photo.
For a couple of years now, I have been buying cabinet photos from The White Whale, an antique shop in Hudson, NY, each time I have vacationed there. The cabinet photos make for arresting portraiture studies to me for several reasons. First, photography was still expensive and most cameras were only in the hands of professional photographers. This means that most cabinet photos are of regular people, dressed in their best clothes, who must have traveled “into town,” to have their portrait taken. The cards I have bought are often of young women, dressed in probably what is their best dress. So, drawing ordinary people of modest means has a certain appeal.
The second consideration is more of a technical one. Photography was still a technology in its infancy. Long exposures and the process of print-making often did not produce as crisp an image as what we are used to today. In the image I am using, taken by photographer F. C. Flint, of Syracuse, NY, the skin-tones of the woman photographed are pretty uniformly the white of the paper, as are most of the woman’s intricate lace dress. There’s little to go on to draw the normal contours and shadows of the woman’s face, except for some shadow around the eyes and under the woman’s chin. For the way I tend to sketch portraiture, the lack of detail forces you to develop those details yourself, and intuitively. You have to learn to fill in the missing information with a good intuitive sense of anatomy and texture.
A second cabinet photo, this time the image is based on a photo from Farrand & Neale, 18th and 6th Ave, NYC.
The face in the photo is placid. For whatever reason she seems anxious and terrified as I draw her. A reflection of my own state, perhaps. Nonetheless, thank you for viewing.
Also, below the woman’s face, her shoulders and chest begin to disappear in shadow. It’s a challenge to draw with a fair deal of detail from the image, and another challenge to replicate (in pencil) the vanishing light around the edges of the image in Victorian era photography.
This new drawing I found interesting to do, because of the elaborate clothing and the amount of detail in the photo. The image I am working from (the actual photo print) is very small, about 2 and 1/4″ by 4″. This particular photo is much smaller than most of the cabinet photos in my collection, although the others vary as well, in size and shape.
Since I am gearing up to do a portrait on commission, I broke out the pencils today (a new set, sent to me by my kind sister Jennifer) to practice my hand at sketching –something I will very likely be working on a lot in coming days. Again, from one of the cabinet photos my partner and I have collected, this one marked: “DeWitt”
He’s a relatively severe looking, aged gentleman, but I came to like him while I was drawing him and his substantial beard.
Cabinet photos can generally be found in antique shops locally, and can also be found online. They make a very interesting subject, in my mind for practicing portraiture.