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© 2011 New-York Historical Society logo

Guide to the Imperial Portrait Photograph File
 PR 210

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400

© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Processed by Sandra Markham

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on December 13, 2011
Description is in English.

Historical Note

Imperial format photographic portraits were introduced in America in the mid-1850s. A specialty of the Mathew B. Brady Studio, the Imperial was a formal portrait size photograph, contact printed on sensitized paper using a glass plate negative of approximately 21 by 17 inches. The New York studios, notably Brady's, employed colorists to overpaint the photographic print with watercolor or India ink wash tones and highlights. In some cases, just the sitter would be painted and the background left photographic; often both were covered with the toning medium in order to minimize the sitter's physical imperfections or create an elegant furnished room in place of the studio's blank wall. The result was often more a painted, rather than photographic, portrait that in size and elegance was meant to be the modern equivalent of an ancestral portrait.

The portraits were issued to patrons in a number of ways. Portraits of notable citizens, government officials, and cultural icons such as theatre stars and literary figures were hung in the photographers' studio galleries, which were open to the public. The sitters themselves, or any visitor to the studio, could buy a portrait without painted additions: simply a plain salted paper (the earliest medium) or albumen photograph. Retouching was an extra cost, as was framing. Many of the studios would also photograph Imperial portrait photographs and issue them in the small and less expensive carte de visite format (with the reduced image mounted on a 4 by 2-1/2 inch card, approximately the size of a calling card) as another means of distribution.