Libraries’ ‘Painted Photograph’ exhibit reveals unique treatment of images

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Long before Photoshop and Instagram filters, photographers in the 19th and early 20th centuries enhanced their work with water colors, oil paints, chalk, charcoal and crayon. The newest exhibit presented by the University Libraries, “The Painted Photograph: Selections from the B. & H. Henisch Photo-History Collection,” features a selection of these overpainted photographs, showing the rich variety and range of techniques and materials used.

The exhibition is located in the Henisch Room, 201A Pattee Library, and available for viewing through July 30 during Pattee Library’s summer operating hours.

The more than 300 overpaintings in the Henisch Collection originate from 1842 to 1914. Eighty-five are featured in the display, including early daguerreotypes and a memorial roundel from the early 20th century. The overpaintings are mostly of American origin, of unknown subjects taken by unknown photographers, and were found by the Henisches in dusty flea markets and antique stores in central Pennsylvania.

While the overpainted photographs in this collection portrayed everyday life, each one is unique in that a colorist painted it by hand. One of the rarest items in the Henisch Collection is a photographer’s advertising scroll of overpainted samples from the 1890s. The scroll contains overpainted gelatin silver prints on canvas, charcoal and crayon-enhanced portraits, and advertisements for frames. In addition to the items in the exhibition cases, the photographs on the walls of the Henisch Room represent all overpainting techniques, from pencil and charcoal to watercolor, pastel and oil paint.

From its earliest days, photography was used for portraiture and to mark special occasions and family milestones. While the medium rendered shapes and textures in great detail, it did not produce realistic color, and the images captured on paper would often fade over time. Photographers not only “painted” their work, but also enlarged, enhanced and framed the images to simulate the splendors of traditional oil portraits of the upper classes.

Curated by Candice Driver, Stelts/Filippelli intern in the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, the exhibit is staged in the Henisch Room, which presents educational information and examples of 19th-century photographic processes. Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, ivorytypes and imprinted enamel and glass are displayed in this exhibit, as well as large, framed gelatin silver prints and overpainted photographs on paper in the form of cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards.

One tintype, heavily overpainted with oil, features a group of three young men, circa 1900, and demonstrates how enlargements of photographs were made. Accompanying it in the exhibit case is the small, original tintype that was re-photographed with a bigger camera to produce the larger example. There is also an unusual double post-mortem photograph of a young girl, a particularly touching example because it sets, side by side, two ambrotype portraits, one taken while the child was alive, the other made after death.

A gift to the Eberly Family Special Collections Library in 1995 from the late Heinz K. Henisch and his wife, Bridget A. Henisch, the Henisches had built a teaching collection on the history of photography and its uses that spanned four decades. Heinz K. Henisch was a professor of the history of photography at Penn State and the founding editor of the journal History of Photography, an International Quarterly, and Bridget Henisch is a medievalist and food historian.

The following year, their book “The Painted Photograph, 1839–1914,” published by the Penn State University Press, provided the first comprehensive history of overpainting. Their scholarship and their collection of photographs of everyday life fill a gap in the annals of photography and social history.

For more information or for questions about accommodations provided for this exhibit, contact Julie Porterfield at 814-865-1793 or jmp48@psu.edu in advance of your visit.

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Last Updated October 11, 2017