When they opened their studios the early photographers had no other point of reference than painted portraits, whose visual codes they adopted. They focused on the face, the expression and the hands of their subjects, satisfying the tastes of these clients who were also influenced by the pictorial model. Following the example of Eugène Disdéri, who invented the visiting cardportrait, the studios gradually accumulated objects which the client could select to make the pose more convincing. The most popular accessory was a book: this was not too cumbersome, and gave an air of culture to the subject who would usually hold it closed in his or her hand, without looking at it.
Félix NadarAdam Salomon© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
For Nadar, the artistic approach to portraiture took precedence over the commercial aspect, and the presence of the hand made an invaluable contribution towards achieving his objective - to express the “intimate resemblance”. In fact, after the face, it is the most revealing part of the human body. The more intimate the relationship between photographer and model, the closer the framing of the portrait, with the hands and face vying for space, as in the case of a number of portraits produced by Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, etc.
Photographs which feature only hands represent the culmination of this framing process. It is here that the special characteristic of the photographic medium comes in, because whereas painters and sculptors produce the image directly, photographers create it, through framing or lighting, by isolating it from the whole to which it belongs. These photographs were produced for various reasons: a study of plaster cast of a hand, by Adophe Bilordeaux, was initially destined for use by artists or students at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, as were Jean-Louis Igout’s plates with several hands in different positions. No one knew quite what August Vacquérie had in mind when he photographed Madame Hugo’s hand, while the palm of banker D’s hand was sent by Nadar to the French Photographic Society’s exhibition in 1861, as an example of his use of “electric light” techniques. On the other hand, when Bronia Wistreich-Weill photographed joined hands recalling several of Rodin’s sculptures, his intention was without doubt to follow the aesthetic of the fragment, which developed throughout the 19th century.
Adolphe BilordeauxStudy of a plaster cast of a hand© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt / Alexis Brandt