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How Paper Photographs Became America’s First Form Of Social Media

The history of American photography is more diverse than you may think.

A photo negative by the Langenheim Brothers, Frederick and William Langenheim. Photo via the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

What would social media look like in the 1800s?


Long before Instagram and Snapchat made photography an integral part of our everyday lives — and identities — picture-making in the 19th century was a social and shareable experience too. Like now, photographs provided an intimate way to document friends and loved ones, creating a lasting moment of nostalgia. And like the political memes that metastasize across our social media today, photographs quickly became an essential means for propaganda and messaging. While much of the early American photography displayed in museums tends to portray folks of a certain class — namely white and affluent populations — “Paper Promises,” a new exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, reveals a more diverse portrait of the nascent days of imagemaking, when pictures were finally able to be printed on paper. Instead of the clumsy glass plates that previously held images, paper photos were portable and personal.

Below, curator Mazie Harris shares a few photos from the collection and provides an inside look at how paper photography became a crucial part of American culture.

“The development of American photography on paper owes a great deal to American immigrants. Two German-born brothers, Frederick Langenheim and William Langenheim, were the first to try to introduce negative-positive photography commercially in the United States. This mesmerizing paper negative gives a sense of how the Langenheim brothers tried to market their wares. Given that we see so few photographic negatives anymore these days, it also gives a sense of how surprising the process must’ve seemed to Americans encountering it for the first time in the 1840s. Knowledge shared by photographers who were born and worked abroad remained exceedingly important throughout the 19th century.”

”Joseph Camp Griffith Kennedy,” studio of Mathew B. Brady, printed about 1860. Photo via the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

“Some of the earliest paper photos were made simply as a way to reproduce portraits made in other media. This is a paper photograph of a daguerreotype, a one-of-a-kind technique that was all the rage in the earliest years of American photography. Much like today’s forms of social media make image sharing pervasive, the development of negative-positive photography allowed Americans to share images much more easily. Paper photos could be sent through the mail or tucked into albums. This image was made in Mathew Brady’s studio. He’s a fascinating figure in the history of photography and another reminder of the importance of immigration in the development of the medium in this country. Accounts about his birthplace differ, but he was either born in Ireland or born to first-generation Irish immigrants. He rose to become one of the most significant photographic entrepreneurs of the mid-19th century.”

Lola Montez, photographed by the Meade Brothers about 1858. Photo via J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

“Naturally, celebrities were quick to take advantage of the power of shared imagery. This is a portrait of an Irish-born woman originally named Eliza Gilbert. Self-styled as a Spanish aristocrat named Lola Montez, she became internationally infamous for scandalous dance performances. When she took up residence in the United States, photographic portraits such as this played a part in her attempt to rehabilitate her reputation. It was much like today’s international celebrities who wield photography to mold their public image.”

”Flora, Statue by Thomas Crawford at the New York Crystal Palace,” photo negative by Victor Prevost, 1854. Photo via the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

“Victor Prevost, the photographer who made this negative, is another formative example of the importance of immigration in the history of American photography. He brought the very latest in photographic innovations when he moved to the States from France. This engrossing image was made during the first world’s fair held in America, at the New York Crystal Palace. You can see the architecture of the building surrounding the sculpture at center. A cloth backdrop was erected to better showcase the artwork, by Thomas Crawford, for the camera. Crawford’s story, too, is one of cross-cultural circulation. His work was so deeply admired at the time that many of the sculptures adorning the United States Capitol were commissioned from him. But though he was American by birth, he moved to Rome to study, and ended up living there for the rest of his life.”

”View of the U.S. Capitol, taken from Pennsylvania Avenue, 1857–1858,” by John Wood. Photo via the Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

“As these examples demonstrate that photography and national identity were being formulated in tandem in the mid-19th century. The ‘Paper Promises’ exhibition catalogue explores how American legal issues impacted the development of photography, as well as how paper photographs helped shape understanding about the country at a time of intense political tension and territorial expansion. This view of the U.S. capitol under construction gives a sense of how much was in flux at the time.”

“Portrait of a Man Smoking,” Hand-colored photo by Benjamin Reimer,1863. Photo via J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

“Portrait of a Gentleman in Baltimore,” by Bendann Brothers about 1859. Photo via J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

“Amidst all the national turmoil, Americans turned increasingly to photography as a form of self-fashioning, presenting themselves as they wanted to be seen, as in these two examples above. The dignified gentleman on the bottom stares resolutely at the camera, while the fellow at the top chose to present himself in a more relaxed posture. His portrait has been carefully hand colored so that puffs of smoke appear to waft out of his pipe. Both men were taking advantage of the power of the medium to craft and circulate a particular sense of self.”

”Member of the First Japanese Diplomatic Mission to the United States,” photo by Jesse H. Whitehurst, 1860. Photo courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

“Paper photographs not only helped Americans to see each other, but gave them glimpses of the wider world. When the first delegation of Japanese ambassadors arrived on the east coast in 1860, American media scrambled to share images of their diplomatic tour. Newspapers reproduced photographs of the group alongside reports of their trade treaty negotiations. Half a million New Yorkers are said to have lined the street to catch a glimpse of the delegation, but many Americans experienced their visit solely through photographic souvenirs.”

“Contrabands on Mr. Toller’s Farm,” photo by “James F. Gibson, 1862. Photo via J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

“The power of photography as a persuasive medium was brought home even more intensely during the Civil War, when images of African-Americans were circulated to muster support for the abolitionist cause. This card photograph was made under the auspices of Alexander Gardner, yet another American who was born abroad, and whose move to this country proved crucial in the history of photography in the States.”

Private Jackson O. Broshers, published in “Narrative of Sufferings in Rebel Military Prisons,” photographer unknown, 1864. Photo via J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

“Following the war, portraits of freed but emaciated prisoners-of-war served as further propaganda against Confederate atrocities.”

Ulysses S. Grant, 1863–1868. Photo via the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.

“By the post-war era, paper photography had transitioned from one of many techniques vying for market attention, to a truly pervasive medium. Like their fellow Americans, politicians became increasingly adept at using photographs as a crucial aspect of public positioning. This sheet of uncut photographs was likely intended to be made into promotional badges to promote the Grant-Colfax ticket in the 1868 presidential election. Just as photography today is deeply intertwined in debates about our country’s ideals and political policies, paper photographs of the mid-19th century were a crucial means of circulating ideas about the nation and its people.”

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