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Bourgeoisie, Travel, and Cameras: A XIX Century Trend

Nowadays, everything can be recorded, shared and reality can be built from that.

Like any other memory, tale, anecdote, and especially history books, could be modified according to convenience or fragility; during the time of man on earth, there has existed a wide range of representations, from cave painting to wood carving techniques that have tried to freeze a feeling, situation, tale or identity in time. But in the XIX century, the subjectivity of a painted portrait or a familiar anecdote was going to transform forever, because cameras were going to be invented, and with that, a revolution of the way people quote or remember things were going to start.

Before the invention of the early version of the camera, a group of people was not poor, not at all, but at the same time, they were not wealthy as the monarchy. This group was known as the bourgeoisie raised after the Industrial Revolution, and with its conformation, another challenge came with it: The need to create traditions as a brand from the people in that economical position, and it was a dilemma. Back in the day, only the monarchy and royalty could access their immortalization through an image: A painted portrait that was the most honorable way to settle an image, a context, especially a status.

Previous to that moment of invention, there were approximations and notions that without notice, were the raw material of what later was going to become a technique. This raw material was the notions about some elements that had photosensitivity (silver salts), some portraits were made under very complicated circumstances. In the middle XVIII century, some techniques imported from China (Chinese Shadow Theatre) gained popularity and the demand for these kinds of portraits with silhouette technique (portraits “à la Silhouette”, or made from the shadow) was very high among the bourgeoisie.

JOHANN KASPAR LAVATER. Silhouette Machine, c. 1780. Engraving from Essays on Physiognomy. Gemsheim Collection, Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin

In the beginning, photography was only in the hands of the artists, it was a mechanical device that could be used for experimentation, later on, the bourgeoise started to use photography as a part of their way to invent traditions as a way to solidify their status. Being a new social class that aspired to royalty titles but also needed to distinguish among the non-rich. After some improvements, daguerreotypes were used to portrait trades, there are many images with one or more people who were in the same activity, firemen, shoemakers, and all the existent at the end of the XIX century.

Jabez Hogg Making a Portrait in Richard Beard's Studio, 1843. Source:

Later on, photography also became about weddings and travel especially in the context of the settlement of the bourgeoisie, because a way to show their status exploded when the travel fashion came, having an image to show that nobody could deny it was about the excitement for the travelers on one side and the chance to see other places of the globe without the need to go. With time, pictures were a new way of the archive, something that complements historical documentation (written by a few) and testimonies, they became important enough to the point that in the U.S.A. pictures were part of the marriage documents.

Above all different outcomes, the mechanics involved in taking a photo evolved, changed, got lighter, popular, and diversified; how important has it been for memory processes. Memory is something humans have developed but photography embodies that memory, it is something people can check to refresh fragments that time waste until they become vague. If paintings were abstract, photos show moments and people who were there, without doubt, and most of it, can give to the pass of time a whole new set of meanings, what do people remember about their own faces and bodies, how it was perceived in personal memory until contrasted with the physical evidence of it. Photography also has a “negative” side. For collective memory, photos portray certain people and situations, but of course, everything that was happening outside that image, in particular, is omitted by it. Another peculiarity of photography is the fact that most of the time it lacks the chance or improvisation, no matter the context, the idea of getting an image taken from reality has necessarily a planning.

There are many agents in society and through history, whose intentions to transform reality by distorting the past could and have been fought with the power of pictures. Away from an early passive state, an image saved through time can reveal things that by some people’s surprise and other people’s fear are undeniable: The context a picture gives. It can help to fight the idea of old good times or to bring memories about how better life could have been in the early years. The interpretation of a picture can lead a person or a group of them to contrast different times and situations. People never feel in the same place or at least, in the same state of mind when they stare at a meaningful (personal or not) picture. Since photography has existed, there is a little bit of advantage to remember. Who would have ever believed that certain things happened in the way they happened if it was not for photographs?


  • Benjamin, W. (1972). A Short History of Photography. Screen, 13(1), 5-26.

  • Benmayor, R., Freund, A., Chowdhury, I., & Dominguez, P. (s. f.). Series Editors: Linda Shopes and Bruce M. Stave. 261.

  • Fernández de Rota y Monter, J. A. (Ed.). (1996). Las diferentes caras de España: Perspectivas de antropólogos extranjeros y españoles. Universidade da Coruña, Servicio de Publicacións.

  • La Historia de la fotografía ante un nuevo tiempo cultural: Reflexiones para un encuentro interdisciplinar. (2015). Fotocinema. Revista científica de cine y fotografía.


  • Miguel, J. M. de, & León, O. G. P. de. (1998). Para una sociología de la fotografía. Reis, 84, 83.



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Melisa Silva

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