Artifices of Early Photography and Phonography

On May 19, 2013, while on the road home from the ARSC conference in Kansas City, I spotted a stack of tintypes at an antique mall in Springfield, Illinois, including this one, which I picked up for $2 as the first in what has since grown to be a fairly large collection of such things:

001 I’d never paid very close attention to the history of photography before, or to any branch of visual arts, for that matter.  In spite of that—or maybe because of it—I found myself utterly fascinated by this picture.  Specifically, I was struck by the way in which a real girl, a few props swiped from nature, and a painted background had been brought together in front of the camera and fused into a single image.  Yes, I know: this sort of thing is extremely common, and pretty much everyone knows about it.  But seeing this tintype suddenly got me to thinking about parallels between the artifices of portraits like this one and the artifices of the early “descriptive” sound recordings I’d been studying for the past fifteen years.  As a quick introduction to the phonographic “descriptive” genre for any readers who may not be familiar with it, here’s Trip to the County Fair (Edison Amberol 538, released 1910, UCSB 1908):

This is one of the twenty selections I included in the “Pioneers of Audio Theater” program I put together several years ago for the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  As I wrote then: “Early commercial recording companies experimented with many different types of content, and some of their most creative and ambitious efforts fell into a category now known as ‘audio theater,’ basically the sound-only equivalent of the fiction film. Phonographic audio theater combined techniques from a wide variety of sources including theatrical sound effects, oral mimicry, ventriloquial acts, the conventions of the instrumental ‘descriptive specialty,’ and nineteenth-century stage caricatures of distinctive speech styles (especially ethnic ones).”  All these techniques feature to a greater or lesser degree in Trip to the County Fair.  Listen, for instance, to the train effects starting at the 28 second mark.  These would have been produced in the recording studio using sound-effect devices much like the ones I saw displayed at Thomas Edison National Historical Park during a visit in February 2012:

tenhp-sound-effect-devicesThe caption reads: “SOUND-EFFECT DEVICES.  Many techniques for creating sound effects were pioneered in early phonograph recording studios and developed later in radio and the movies.  Sound-effect devices used in Edison’s recording studio include: 1. sleigh bells  2. wood clacker  3. tambourine  4. tin pan noisemaker  5. coconut shells for sounds imitating horses’ hooves  6. shoe sole on wood block for imitating slaps or footfalls.”  Many of these sound-effect devices actually originated in live theater, and I suspect Edison’s studio had probably ordered some of them ready-made from theatrical supply houses.  However, gadgets of this sort were indeed used a great deal in early phonography, which is the point of analogy with photography I want to pursue here.

Let’s take a step back to consider what’s at stake.  On one hand, photography and phonography were revolutionary as recording technologies that caused waves of light and sound to “write themselves,” in the parlance of the times.  James Lastra accordingly calls them autographic (“self-writing”).[1]  In contrast to most earlier approaches to visual and aural representation, photography and phonography could produce semblances of things without anyone needing to attend consciously to the details of what they looked like or sounded like.  A photograph or sound recording could resemble its subject because that subject had actually caused it to assume the form it had, and not because somebody had ingeniously copied that form through keen observation and mimetic skill.

On the other hand, photography and phonography both routinely drew on older techniques of representation that weren’t based on such directly indexical relationships and were instead rooted in various kinds of subjective emulation.  The usual opposite of autographic is allographic (“other-writing”), so I’ll borrow that term as a handy blanket name for this other category, which doesn’t otherwise seem to have one—or at least if it does, I don’t know what it is (if you do, please let me know).  For the purposes of my distinction, autographic techniques rely on automated recording, while allographic techniques rely on conscious delineation (describing, drawing, sculpting, mimicking, etc.).[2]

Point #1: The use of painted backdrops in early photography and the use of sound-effect devices in early phonography are both prime examples of the combination of autographic and allographic techniques.

By definition, early photographic portraits were formed by photons bouncing off real people and onto plates in cameras (unless they were photographs of portraits, which isn’t really the same thing).  As likenesses of those people, they were thoroughly autographic.  However, the results also had to work culturally as portraits, which implicated a variety of older expectations and conventions.  Some of these had to do with providing appropriate backgrounds.  The “natural” interior of a photographer’s workplace was rarely used as a background, probably because it would have been considered unattractive or distracting.  Here’s one of the few obvious exceptions in my collection, a tintype taken inside an itinerant photographer’s tent with striped walls (and even here, an effort was still made to create a photogenic setting through furniture):

111 In many cases, a blank backdrop was placed behind the subject to block out distracting visuals in the surroundings, just as was done for many of the earliest motion picture films—a strategy that has been likened in turn to efforts to design early sound-recording studios as spaces where performers could be isolated from distracting noises.[3]  But often the backdrop had a background scene painted on it so that it would not only block out distracting visuals but also provide desirable ones of its own.

A photograph of a person posed in front of a backdrop—whether blank or painted—still has an autographic, indexical relationship with what it portrays if we understand it as portraying a person posed in front of a backdrop.  After all, even the background is technically a record of photons that rebounded from a painted surface and left a self-written trace of themselves.  However, the design of painted background scenes suggests that, at least on some level, the goal was to represent the subject of the portrait as being in the painted scene, with the two together making up a coherent picture, like the subjects and backgrounds in paintings.  From this perspective, the painted backdrop isn’t supposed to represent a painted backdrop in the finished image; it’s supposed to represent whatever scene the painted backdrop is supposed to represent, such as a landscape with trees.  The result combines the representational techniques of photography and painting, even if the painted details are captured photographically.

Similarly, a “descriptive” sound recording such as Trip to the County Fair has an autographic, indexical relationship with what it portrays if we understand it as portraying an ingenious performance of audio theater carried out in a recording studio.  Even the sound effects are technically a record of sound waves produced by sound-effect devices that left a self-written trace of themselves in wax.  However, the very use of titles such as Trip to the County Fair suggests that, at least on some level, the goal was to represent imaginary scenes, with the various sounds combining to sustain coherent fictional worlds.  From this perspective, sound-effect devices aren’t supposed to represent sound-effect devices in the finished recording; they’re supposed to represent whatever the sound-effect devices are supposed to represent—say, a departing train.  The result combines the representational techniques of phonography and sound-effect devices, even if the sound effects are captured phonographically.

Point #2: The analogy I’m drawing between photography and phonography extends to the motives for combining autographic and allographic techniques.

There were good reasons for photographers to resort to using painted backdrops.  From a practical business standpoint, most photographers wouldn’t have been able to set up shop in lavishly decorated homes or idyllic natural surroundings, the kinds of setting that seem to have been most prized as backgrounds for portraits (a preference inherited from earlier traditions of portraiture).  By using painted backdrops, however, they could offer picturesque backgrounds while working in cramped downtown studios or squalid fairgrounds tents where customers could conveniently get to them.  Moreover, even if photographers had been able to work in places like the ones depicted on backdrops, these would have given unreliable and (probably) less satisfactory results.  It was bad enough having to rely on the vagaries of natural sunlight, but photographing people in front of “real” backgrounds would have introduced a host of other uncontrollable variables.  Given mid-nineteenth-century exposure times, for example, even a slight wind would have caused trees to blur, whereas painted backdrops could depict background objects with consistent sharpness—even those shown in rapid motion.  Contrast the “real” background of trees in the portrait on the left with the painted background of waves crashing against rocks in the portrait on the right:

644+068In short, photographers used painted backdrops to represent things that would have been too inconvenient or technically difficult to capture directly through photography.  The makers of early sound recordings used sound-effect devices for much the same reasons.  Sure, it might have been possible to bring a real horse into a recording studio to produce the clip-clopping of hooves, or to take a phonograph to the nearest railroad depot to capture the sounds of a train, but it would have been highly inconvenient to do these things, or to get the horse or train to perform on cue as needed.  It would also have been technically challenging to capture the “real” sounds in the era of acoustic recording: imagine the difficulty of aiming a recording horn at the hooves of a trotting horse.  The issues of convenience and coordination still pertain today, even if we can now reliably photograph real trees and record real horses.  And they had also pertained in live theater, where painted backdrops and sound-effect devices had both been used together before the invention of photography.  Painted backdrops turn up in early cinema as well—for a few examples, see Buster and Tige Put a Balloon Vendor Out of Business (1904), The Mystic Swing (1900) and the closing scene of The Astor Tramp (1899).

backdrops-early-cinemaThe backdrop in The Mystic Swing might have been intended to represent the backdrop for a stage magic act, which would suggest something in turn about how prevalent painted backdrops were in live performance arts at the time.  However, the painted backdrops in Buster and Tige and The Astor Tramp are both plainly intended to represent what they depict: a cityscape and the exterior of a building.  Here, too, the choice of strategy presumably had something to do with ease or convenience.  But that’s certainly not the whole story, which brings me to….

Point #3: The allographic techniques used in early photography and early phonography both belong to larger artistic traditions.

To a modern ear, it’s often blatantly obvious that the sound effects heard in early descriptive recordings aren’t records of the “real thing.”  For example, listen to the passage starting 55 seconds into this recording of The Flogging Scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Len Spencer (Edison Gold Moulded 8656, issued 1904, UCSB 4188):

…or this simulation of artillery fire from The Battle of Santiago by the Haydn Quartet (Victor 1330, probably matrix B-3325-1, recorded April 23, 1906):

Similarly, the background scenes painted onto backdrops for use in early photography often seem to have little to do with illusionistic realism—indeed, Jim Linderman’s book The Painted Backdrop primarily showcases “folk art” backdrops and their painters.[4]  Here are some examples from my own collection to illustrate the point:

231+160+391The cinematic backdrops mentioned above present a less extreme case: not “folk art,” but you still wouldn’t mistake the background of Buster and Tige for a “real” filmed cityscape.  Backdrops that are conspicuous as backdrops are sometimes characterized by photograph historians as “unconvincing,” and I expect listeners often pass similar judgments on descriptive recordings (“seriously, am I supposed to think that’s a whip?”).  It’s possible, I suppose, that people of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were more easily deceived than we are, and that they hadn’t yet learned to make distinctions among mediatized sights and sounds that are now second-nature for us.   But that reading doesn’t ring true to me, and I’m not sure the goal in either case was to be “convincing” in the sense of a trompe-l’œil or trompe-l’oreille.  Instead, I suspect painted backdrops and sound-effects devices alike were simply being approached in terms of other codes and conventions of artistic representation.  I also think we’re more attuned to recognize this happening in photographs than in sound recordings.

When it comes to nineteenth-century painting, we have a pretty good idea what the codes and conventions were because we still have ready access to paintings themselves, and the field of art history has devoted a lot of study to precisely this kind of issue.  The backdrops in the three photographs shown above aren’t just “unconvincing” and nothing more; instead, they resemble other visual works we know about, and we instantly recognize them as rooted in larger traditions, whether “folk art” or “fine art.”  The same is true to a lesser degree of other artifices of early photography: for instance, fake stumps and other three-dimensional artificial flora are arguably a branch of sculpture (no pun intended), and conventional poses resemble those we know from other visual media, as with the would-be Napoleon seen below at right.


We don’t have this same level of access or understanding when it comes to nineteenth-century codes and conventions of aural representation.  There’s a tendency—as in the caption on the display at Thomas Edison National Historical Park—to assume that any sound effects found in phonography were “pioneered” in phonography because phonographic examples are the earliest ones we can still hear.  But on the whole, sounds produced in conscious imitation of other sounds were surely also widespread outside phonography, for instance in live theater or vernacular storytelling.  In those cases, they were of course also evanescent; they may have been described, prescribed, or transcribed, but they haven’t come down to us in the same direct way paintings have.  Imagine the added value photographs with painted backdrops would have if every painting from the same period and before had somehow been destroyed.  Sound recordings with imitative effects actually have that kind of value when it comes to the broader history of allographic sound art.

With that in mind, I’d like to invite you to try a little exercise.  First, look back through the various images shown above and try to spot as many elements as you can that seem intended to depict something other than the actual state of affairs in the studio when the photographs were taken.  Then listen again to the sound recordings and try to do the same thing with them, keeping in mind that we’re interested in anything that counts as an imitation rather than a record of the “real thing.”

What I want to suggest is that the artifices you hear in the sound recordings belonged to a culture of representational sound that was as rich and pervasive as the visual culture associated with the artifices you see in the photographs.  That culture may have left fewer conspicuous traces of itself behind, such that it’s easy to overlook its very existence.  After all, there are no sound effects or oral caricatures hanging on museum walls to demand explanation; even the sound-effect devices on display at Thomas Edison National Historical Park are tools of production, more analogous to paintbrushes and palettes.  But we do have sound recordings, and that’s where I find the analogy I’ve been drawing here between photography and phonography potentially helpful.  Painted backdrops and other accessories of early photography are easily recognizable as belonging to the “visual arts” of their time and seem to be reasonably representative of them in terms of breadth, especially if we include early cinema with its mediatization of gesture, dance, and so forth.  The artifices of early phonography offer us a comparable window on the “aural arts” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It’s not a fully transparent window, to be sure, but it’s no worse a window than the painted backdrops in photographs would offer on painting if we had no actual paintings to look at.  And who knows—inventorying the “aural arts” of the past through the window of phonography might even prompt us to reevaluate the scope of the “aural arts” today.


1. James Lastra, Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 73.

2.  I don’t mean quite the same thing Nelson Goodman does when he distinguishes between autographic (“forgeable”) and allographic (“unforgeable”) arts; among other things, painting is autographic for him but would be allographic for me because it is not self-writing.  The fact that I’m writing about autographic and allographic techniques rather than arts should help reduce the risk of confusion.  However, I believe there’s also some consonance between our two sets of distinctions: as a representation of a particular scene, a photograph or phonogram can be a “fake” (lacking the expected indexical relationship with its subject) in a way that a painting or vocal imitation can’t (since those arts don’t allow for this kind of indexicality in the first place).  See Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols, 2nd Ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976).

3. See the discussion of this point in my dissertation: Patrick Feaster, “‘The Following Record’: Making Sense of Phonographic Performance, 1877-1908,” Ph.D. thesis (Indiana University Bloomington, 2007), 156.

4. Jim Linderman, The Painted Backdrop: Behind the Sitter in American Tintype Photography 1860-1920 (Blurb, 2010).


3 thoughts on “Artifices of Early Photography and Phonography

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