Soap Bubbles: Early Outdoor Portraiture
In the early days of photography, daguerreotypes required long exposure times of anywhere from five to twenty minutes. As a result, portraits were often taken in studios under controlled and often formal conditions. Photographers asked their clients to take a seated or standing pose, and used a head rest on a posing stand to keep the subject’s face steady.
Over time, technical research made it possible to increase shutter speed as well as the sensitivity of photographic plates. Formal indoor portrait commissions nonetheless remained the main activity of daguerreotypists. Outdoor portraiture was far less common, due to the challenges it presented, including the transportation of equipment, lighting conditions, and variations in temperature. Despite all this, Hermann Carl Eduard Biewend (1814−1888) remained keenly interested in capturing depictions of his subjects outside.
A metallurgical specialist and Master of the Mint for the Bank of Hamburg (1843–1876), Biewend became an amateur daguerreotypist in 1846. During this same period, several scientists were experimenting with photographic processes and pushing the medium’s technical limits. Scientists also saw photography as an excellent tool for documenting their work.
Biewend was one of the rare German daguerreotypists to have produced landscapes and architectural views as well portraits. He enjoyed photographing members of his family outdoors, in relaxed poses that are often quite tender. Mathilde and Luise Biewend Blowing Soap-bubbles, Dr. Pfund’s Garden, St. Georg shows his two children blowing bubbles in a garden on the outskirts of Hamburg.
This scene recalls a type of portrait painting known as a “conversation piece.” Popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in England, conversation pieces depicted a couple, friends, or members of a family gathered around a familiar and intimate activity such as a conversation, a game of cards, reading together, or a musical performance. The most favoured setting was an interior scene, although this later evolved to include outdoor environments, such as gardens and parks.
The portrait of Mathilde and Luise falls within this tradition, although with an added liveliness that sets it apart from the idealized compositions in paintings of the time. Biewend also gave free rein to the “accidental” blur caused by the movement of his children. This spontaneous aspect is surprising within the realm of daguerreotypes, because the length of the required exposure times often dictated rigid poses. This limitation made it more difficult to depict people or objects in motion.
A closer look at the portrait of Mathilde and Luise reveals that there is not a single soap bubble in the photograph. This makes the title of the image all the more essential because, by referring to the action, viewers will imagine bubbles floating through the air.
To view other soap bubble photographs, check out the following works, which are also part of the National Gallery of Canada collection.