Imperial Portrait Photograph File
Language of Materials
The Imperial Portrait Photograph File consists of portraits of prominent men and women taken in the latter half of the nineteenth century by photographers Mathew B. Brady, Alexander Gardner, Charles Fredricks, Jeremiah Gurney, and by unidentified photographers.
Imperial format photographic portraits were introduced in America in the mid-1850s. A specialty of the Mathew B. Brady Studio, the Imperial was a formal portrait size photograph, contact printed on sensitized paper using a glass plate negative of approximately 21 by 17 inches. The New York studios, notably Brady's, employed colorists to overpaint the photographic print with watercolor or India ink wash tones and highlights. In some cases, just the sitter would be painted and the background left photographic; often both were covered with the toning medium in order to minimize the sitter's physical imperfections or create an elegant furnished room in place of the studio's blank wall. The result was often more a painted, rather than photographic, portrait that in size and elegance was meant to be the modern equivalent of an ancestral portrait.
The portraits were issued to patrons in a number of ways. Portraits of notable citizens, government officials, and cultural icons such as theatre stars and literary figures were hung in the photographers' studio galleries, which were open to the public. The sitters themselves, or any visitor to the studio, could buy a portrait without painted additions: simply a plain salted paper (the earliest medium) or albumen photograph. Retouching was an extra cost, as was framing. Many of the studios would also photograph Imperial portrait photographs and issue them in the small and less expensive carte de visite format (with the reduced image mounted on a 4 by 2-1/2 inch card, approximately the size of a calling card) as another means of distribution.
The collection is arranged in five series, based on photographer. One folder of oversize photographs is available at the end of the collection.
- Series I: Portraits by Mathew B. Brady
- Series II: Portraits by Alexander Gardner
- Series III: Portrait by Charles Fredricks
- Series IV: Portraits by Jeremiah Gurney
- Series V: Portraits by Unidentified Photographers
- Oversize Material
Scope and Content Note
The Imperial Portrait Photograph File spans the period from the mid-1850s to the early 1870s. The collection is divided into five series, one each for the four identified photographers and one for unidentified work.
The New-York Historical Society's Imperial portrait file contains examples of both retouched and unretouched portraits in a variety of sizes, showing nearly the full range offered by this format. Due to their special format, the photographs comprising the Imperial Portrait Photograph File were removed from the Print Room's Portrait File (PR 052) when that collection was processed in 2002.
Open to qualified researchers.
Photocopying undertaken by staff only. Limited to thirty exposures of stable, unbound material per day. See guidelines in Print Room for details.
Permission to reproduce any Print Room holdings through publication must be obtained from:
Rights and ReproductionsThe New-York Historical Society
Two West 77th Street
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400 ext. 282
Fax: (212) 579-8794
The copyright law of the United States governs the making of photocopies and protects unpublished materials as well as published materials. Unpublished materials created before January 1, 1978 cannot be quoted in publication without permission of the copyright holder.
This collection should be cited as: Imperial Portrait Photograph File, PR 210, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, The New-York Historical Society.
Gifts of various donors including Daniel Parish, 1905.