“A Medium in Shadows:” The Physiognotrace and Issues of Portrayal in Historical Media

How many pictures do you own? What do they say to you about the places and people they capture?

For the historian, visual media such as paintings or photography can present a dilemma. On the one hand, they can shed light simply illustrate forces, events, and characters at work in the past. On the other, they could simply be a suave presentation of facts or features intended to create a narrative.

How people measured the veracity and significance of their chosen media can help determine both their subjective value and their contribution to historical narrative.

Take, for instance, the “physiognotrace,” a technology that created “shadow silhouette” portraits that trended in popularity at the beginning of the 19th century. As Wendy Bellion details in her chapter “Heads of State” for the book, New Media: 1740-1915, this device marveled museum-goers on the Eastern seaboard by recreating profiles in black and white on paper or cloth.

For a small fee, visitors would sit on one side of the device and roll a five-inch length of brass along the side of their head. Upon doing so, a stylus attached to this brass would make inch-long cuts into the paper to create the resulting shadow portrait.

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Though the concept behind this portraiture was not new (Bellion cites precursors earlier in the 18th century that used candlelight), the reasons for its popularity during the Jeffersonian period were unique.

At the same time, as Bellion mentions, Enlightenment-era values of presentation in the public eye retained a central role in determining social status. The ability to afford quality clothing and to commission paint portraits were just a few markers of such esteem.

The physiognotrace appealed to the broader public by granting access to more affordable forms of self-presentation.

Attendees to the Pennsylvania State House Museum (where the device premiered) and other institutions where the technology was replicated obtain portraits for only the cost of the paper. was promoted by its inventor, John Hawkins, the museum, and members of the press for its ability to capture the likeness of the average museum-goer; to represent those often underrepresented in their time, due to class and wealth. (Bellion 46-47)

Indeed, both the author and historical characters seemed to grasp a deeper, democratic significance to this portraiture technology in its ability to provide citizens an affordable way to seemingly enhance and perform their appearances in visual art.

Such was the popularity of this device at the Pennsylvania State House museum (producing enough original portraits to be stored by the barrel) that Bellion called it a “visual analog of the imagined place Jeffersonian political subjects,” one capable of merging “both the subject and the act of representation.” (Bellion 38,48)

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This technology, like many others, however, had both limitations and unintended consequences that complicated it’s status then as modern media that served to advance progress.

As Bellion implies toward the end of her chapter, portraiture technology and the philosophies of evoking one’s nature through bodily representation was used toward darker ends. The “father of eugenics,” Francis Galton, for instance, utilized photo negatives of criminals in order to attempt to prove that people with certain facial or skeletal structures were more prone to crime or buffoonery, a concept that would be utilized on behalf of scientific racism and profiling. (Bellion 51)

Additionally, in spite of their claims of accuracy and public availability, the creators and promoters of the physiognotrace tried and failed to prevent their technology from being copied by others, and admitted to limitations in the device’s ability. Bellion even concedes that silhouette portraiture never matched the popularity of neoclassical art, perhaps due to wedded values of greater public representation and attention to appearances (facial and otherwise) in Jeffersonian society. (Bellion 51)

Still, the limits of this device have not staved off descendant technologies of visual portrayal closer to the present.

As Bellion’s chapter reminds us, new technology in the context of a particular period will always have its own advances, limitations, and unintended consequences. More importantly, the seeming objective accuracy of a visual medium, like other sources, retains the power to convey narrative, not just historical truth.

As a historian committed to producing media for you, the audience, I have to check that the content I create presents facts, not just my perspective. The relative novelty of this blog compared to “old media” such as books and pictures does not diminish its ability to say as much about me, its author, as my chosen topic.

And yet, historians must persist with the most modern tools they have at hand for the qualities and limits they offer.

In so doing, we, like our predecessors, submit ourselves to historical analysis and judgment in the future.

In so doing, we too become “both the subject and act of representation”.

Sources

Wendy Bellion, “Heads of State: Profiles and Politics in Jeffersonian America”, in Lister, Dovey, Giddings, Grant and Kelly, New Media: A Critical Introduction (MIT, 2010), pp. 31-59.

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