Unidentified man, c. early to mid-1870s
Carte de visite portrait by unidentified photographer
Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns
This carte de visite, like the hand coloured portrait which I described in the previous post, was sent to me by Diana Burns, who says:
In the case of the "Man with Strange Eyes," I had at first thought the CDV had been tampered with, but close inspection would suggest that his eyeballs were 'enhanced' over the original photo, although why I don't know.
There is a very simple explanation to why the young man's eyes look as though they have been tampered with - they have! The photosensitive emulsions used on early photographic glass plate negatives were far more sensitive to blue, violet and ultraviolet light than that of other wavelengths. This made the colours from the blue end of the spectrum appear abnormally dark on the negative, and hence very light on the albumen print produced, for example, on a carte de visite.
To counter this effect, a retoucher would be often employed by the photographer to pencil in the eyeballs appropriately on a print or, less frequently, to alter the negative. It was a tricky process to get right, particularly on the small format of cartes de visite, but obviously worked to the customer's satisfaction in most cases. Over time, while the emulsion on many examples has faded, the retouching has not, leaving the very odd "piercing eyes" effect which is very commonly observed in many old portraits from the first few decades. In this particular portrait, the dots of black ink have not been added very carefully, so now that the contrast has been enhanced by fading of the sepia, the large size, odd shape and misplacing of the surrogate irises seems very odd indeed.
Digitally recreated negative
This peculiarity of early photographic emulsions being not equally sensitive to all wavelengths of light, also resulted in the "shades of grey" - actually sepia - that were produced on prints from the 1850s through to the 1880s not being the same shades as those that might be produced by the same sets of clothes, skin tones, hair and backdrops in a studio today. In addition, too much white or light coloured clothing could easily result in an over-exposed, washed-out effect. Studio photographers would therefore often provide detailed guidelines on what colour clothes their customers should and shouldn't wear when visiting for a portrait.
Example of unretouched albumen print, showing "pale" eyes
Detail from stereographic print of family of Charles and Lucy Stratton, c. early 1880s
Image © and courtesy of Liz Stratton
After reading this article Liz Stratton very kindly sent me some scans of a stereographic portrait of her ancestors (Stratton family photo), which demonstrates how such a lightening of the eyes would look in an unretouched state. Being from the early 1880s, by which time technology had developed somewhat, the effect is somewhat less than it might have been in earlier years. I have some earlier examples which show the effect and, if I can find that "safe place" where I put them, I'll feature scans in a future Photo-Sleuth article.