Historically, painted portraits were reserved for the wealthy, the powerful, the celebrated and the sacred. Portraits had a specific iconography, so that they could be easily interpreted: certain colours of clothing, such as purple, or the display of furs and silks signified wealth and privilege; a family grouping implied prosperity and the continuation of a noble line; books and maps were used as props to underscore the status of the subject; and a view through an open window suggested that the sitter possessed land and riches.
With the birth of photography, however, and specifically the rise of the commercial portrait studio, members of the middle class could take part in this ritual, which had previously been out of their grasp. They too could commemorate momentous occasions in their lives with an image. Portraiture, through photography, became a common practice and an extension of family activity.
From its beginnings, photography has been used to create portraits. Drawing authority from its scientific origins, photography was praised for its honesty and accuracy; whereas one could pay an artist to capture "character" over exact likeness (and a clever portraitist recognised the difference) it was believed that the photographer could not lie.
Yet in the photographer's studio, for the price of the image, a family's standing could be -- and very often was -- enhanced. The use of velvet drapery and beautiful furniture provided a parlour setting to rival that of any wealthy home. Against this backdrop, dressed in their very best clothing, the subjects could be pictured and preserved as models of prosperity. As well as purchasing their own portraits, studio customers could also buy images of famous people, members of the royal family and exotic "others" from far away places. These images were displayed together with the immediate family in albums, creating a curious crosspollination of scrapbook, souvenir and family tree.
The earliest daguerreotype held by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) dates from 1843. It is the wedding portrait of Samuel Leonard Tilley (1818-1896) and Julia Ann Hanford (d. 1862). Making the image that much more compelling is the fact that today's viewer possesses knowledge that the sitters didn't have at the time of the photograph. We know, for example, that Julia died 19 years after the daguerreotype was taken and that Samuel remarried. This layering of information onto an image is an interesting thread that runs throughout the collection. It can be explored through photographs such as that of the Edmonton branch of the Canadian Women's Press Club (1920), showing member Emily Murphy, nine years before the Persons Case that made her famous.