London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3
WITHIN the last few years photographic portraits have gradually been diminishing in price, until at the present time they have become a regular article of street commerce. Those living at the west-end of London have but little idea of the number of persons who gain a livelihood by street photography.
There may be or "galleries" in the New-road, or in Tottenham-court-road, but these supply mostly shilling portraits. In the eastern and southern districts of London, however, such as in , the New-cut, and the Whitechapel-road, cannot walk yards without passing some photographic establishment, where for sixpence persons can have their portrait taken, and framed and glazed as well.
It was in that I met with the instance of what may be called pure street photography. Here a Mr. F——I was taking sixpenny portraits in a booth built up out of old canvas, and erected on a piece of spare ground in a furniture-broker"s yard.
Mr. F——I had been a travelling showman, but finding that photography was attracting more attention than giants and dwarfs, he relinquished the wonders of Nature for those of Science.
Into this yard he had driven his yellow caravan, where it stood like an enormous Noah"s ark, and in front of the caravan (by means of clothes-horses and posts, over which were spread out the large sail-like paintings (show-cloths), which were used at fairs to decorate the fronts of booths), he had erected his operating-room, which is about as long and as broad as a knife-house, and only just tall enough to allow a not particularly tall customer to stand up with his hat off: whilst by means of window--sashes a glazed roof had been arranged for letting light into this little tent.
On the day of my visit Mr. F——I was, despite the cloudy state of the atmosphere, doing a large business. A crowd in front of his tent was admiring the photographic specimens, which, of all sizes and in all kinds of frames, were stuck up against the canvas-wall, as irregularly as if a bill-sticker had placed them there. Others were gazing up at the chalky-looking paintings over the door-way, and on which a lady was represented photographing an officer, in the full costume of the Hussars.
Inside the operating room we found a crowd of women and children was assembled, all of them waiting their turn to be taken. Mr. F——I remarked, as I entered, that "It was wonderful the sight of children that had been took;" and he added, "when girl comes for her portrait, there"s a comes along with her to see it took."
The portraits I discovered were taken by Mrs. F——I, who, with the sleeves of her dress tucked up to the elbows, was engaged at the moment of my visit in pointing the camera at a lady and her little boy, who, from his wild nervous expression, seemed to have an idea that the operatress was taking her aim previous to shooting him. Mr. F——I explained to me the reason why his wife officiated. "You see," said he, "people prefers more to be took by a woman than by a man. Many"s a time a lady tells us to send that man away, and let the missis come. It"s quite natural," he continued; "for a lady don"t mind taking her bonnet off and tucking up her hair, or sticking a pin in here and there before of her own sect, which before a man proves objectionable."
After the portrait had been taken I found that the little square piece of glass on which it was impressed was scarcely larger than a visiting card, and this being handed over to a youth, was carried into the caravan at the back, where the process was completed. I was invited to follow the lad to the dwelling on wheels.
The outside of the caravan was very remarkable, and of that peculiar class of architecture which is a mixture of coach-and-ship building. In the centre of the front of the show were little folding-doors with miniature brass knockers, and glass let into the upper panels. On each side of the door were long windows, almost big enough for a shop-front, whilst the white curtains, festooned at their sides, gave them a pleasant appearance. The
|entire erection was coloured yellow, and the numerous little wooden joists and tie-beams, which framed and strengthened the vehicle, conferred upon it a singular plaid-like appearance.
I mounted the broad step-ladder and entered. The room reminded me of a ship"s cabin, for it was panelled and had crossbeams to the arched roof, whilst the bolts and fastenings were of bright brass. If the windows had not been so large, or the roof so high, it would have resembled the fore-cabin of a Gravesend steamer. There were tables and chairs, as in an ordinary cottage room. At end was the family bed, concealed during the day by chintz curtains, which hung down like a drop-scene before a miniature theatre; and between the openings of these curtains I could catch sight of some gaudily attired wax figures stowed away there for want of room, but standing there like a group of actors behind the scenes.
Along of the beams a blunderbuss and a pistol rested on hooks, and the showman"s speaking trumpet (as large as the funnel to a grocer"s coffee-mill) hung against the wall, whilst in corner was a kind of cabin stove of polished brass, before which a boy was drying some of the portraits that had been recently taken.
On inspecting the portrait I found it to be of those drab-looking portraits with a light back-ground, where the figure rises from the bottom of the plate as straight as a post, and is in the cramped, nervous attitude of a patient in a dentist"s chair.
After a time I left Mr. F——I"s, and went to another establishment close by, which had originally formed part of a shop in the pennyice-and-bull"s-eye line—for the name-board over "Photographic Depôt" was still the property of the confectioner—so that the portraits displayed in the window were surmounted by an announcement of "Ginger beer and "
A touter at the door was crying out "Hi! hi!—walk inside! walk inside! and have your c"rect likeness took, frame and glass complete, and only !— time of sitting only seconds!"
A rough-looking, red-faced tanner, who had been staring at some coloured French lithographs which decorated the upper panes, and who, no doubt, imagined that they had been taken by the photographic process, entered, saying, "Let me have my likeness took."
The touter instantly called out, "Here, a shilling likeness for this here gent."
The tanner observed that he wanted only a sixpenny.
"I tell yer I don"t want only sixpennorth," angrily returned the customer, as he entered.
At this establishment the portraits were taken in a little alley adjoining the premises, where the light was so insufficient, that even the blanket hung up at the end of it looked black from the deep shadows cast by the walls.
When the tanner"s portrait was completed it was nearly black; and, indeed, the only thing visible was a slight light on side of the face, and which, doubtlessly, accounted for the short speech which the operator thought fit to make as he presented the likeness to his customer.
Then followed a discussion, in which the artist insisted that he lost by every sixpenny portrait he took, and the tanner as strongly protesting that he couldn"t believe that, for they must get profit any how. "You don"t tumble to the rig," said the artist; "it"s the half-guinea ones, you see, that pays us."
The touter, finding that this discussion was likely to continue, entered and joined the argument. "Why, it"s cheap as dirt," he exclaimed indignantly; "the fact is, our governor"s a friend of the people, and don"t mind losing a little money. He"s determined that everybody shall have a portrait, from the highest to the lowest. Indeed, next Sunday, he talk of taking them for threepenceha"penny, and if that ain"t philandery, what is?"
After the touter"s oration the tanner seemed somewhat contented, and paying his eightpence left the shop, looking at his picture in all lights, and repeatedly polishing it up with the cuff of his coat-sleeve, as if he were trying to brighten it into something like distinctness.
Whilst I was in this establishment a customer was induced to pay twopence for having the theory of photography explained to him. The lecture was to the effect, that the brass tube of the "camerer" was filled with clockwork, which carried the image from the lens to the ground glass at the back. To give what the lecturer called "hockeylar proof" of this, the camera was carried to the shopdoor, and a boy who was passing by ordered to stand still for a minute.