Stickybacks.uk

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"Stickybacks" and other smaller sizes of portrait photographs: What is this site all about?

Towards the end of the 19th Century, as competition forced down prices between professional photographers, so some looked for new markets and for new products beyond the long established "carte de visite" and "cabinet photograph" formats. Many produced prints in the new postcard format, which could be used for postal communication as well as more traditional purposes. Some photographers found a way ahead by introducing "cheap work" developing smaller, less expensive, portrait formats, saving on materials, and marketed these, sometimes as novelties, to those who until this point may not have been able to afford more traditional photographic products. Some photographers shifted primarily to these smaller portrait formats, while others added them to their existing offerings. So, we find, from around the 1890s to perhaps the 1920s, a variety of different offerings and formats of tiny portraits. Specific names were given to some of these formats (for example "Stickybacks", "midgets" and "stamps") but there was a lot of variation and lack of precision in nomenclature. Taken together, these smaller sized portraits are a whole body of work which collectors and photo historians have neither named or considered as a genre. This site is dedicated to recognising the practitioners and products of the smaller size portrait photograph trade.

At the end of the 19th Century the professional photographers' regular products were cabinet photographs, cartes de visite, various mounted enlargements and postcard format portraits. Their business was directed towards a middle class clientele, and having your portrait taken was still a serious and expensive business. The smaller size portrait photographer made the process not only affordable, but also fun. The operator in this field rarely used newspaper advertising and was more likely to entice customers by advertisements plastered over his/her premises and employing touts to shout or accost passers-by in the street outside. The ensuing public interest occasionally necessitated the employment of a doorman to keep order and very occasionally excited crowds attracted police interest. Many clients had never been photographed before and, for some, twelve portraits for three old pence was an experience that they enjoyed and even loved to repeat.

 

I ....am producing the class of photographs which sell, and by which I have managed to make a living and pay my way for the past few years. I don't go in for "stickybacks and postcards" for any particular love for that class of business, nor yet because I couldn't do a better class of work, but simply because I find it easier to keep myself in constant employment, and therefore be more certain of a regular wage each week.
(Robert C.Platt Jnr, 51 Carr Street, Hebburn-on-Tyne. British Journal of Photography Sept 15 1911 p712.)

 

The "Stickyback" name seems to have originated from the fact that one of the differentiating features of this format was that the rear of the photograph had adhesive applied which operated, as with a postage stamp, with the addition of moisture. The earliest use of the title would appear to date from the promotions of one particular Liverpool photographer, Spiridione Nicolo Grossi (1877-1921), who ran a seasonal portrait studio on the Isle of Man.

Main stream professional photographers referred to their stickyback colleagues in disparaging terms, sneering at their inferior products, which were produced quickly at an affordable price for a new customer base.

As a genre, the small sized portrait photograph and those practicing this part of the trade have been largely overlooked by photo, family and local historians. Surviving products are less common than might be expected given their popularity. They have not been recognised as being of interest by today's collectors and are often mistaken for the products of more recent photo booths or the polyfoto system. Unlike the more expensive cabinets and cartes de visite, the smaller portrait was generally not preserved in a leather-bound family album. Their small size also meant that they were easily lost over time. Many lack the details of the photographer who took them, which again reduced their interest and value. Yet these tiny portraits do have a place in photographic history. They may have been the only images some had of their loved ones when separated through war or work. They may also, as a first encounter with the photographic arts, have stimulated the interest of many who later became competent amateur photographers as equipment and materials became gradually more affordable.

Smaller sized portrait photos may crop up in family albums. There were a number of operators producing these photos from studios up and down the country early in the 20th Century, some stand-alone single businesses, others multiple locations set up by individual entrepreneurs. In some cases travelling photographers might set up a studio for a few weeks then move on when the novelty wore off and sales started to decline. We have started to put together lists of photographers who worked in this particular part of the trade for England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the rest of the world (see sidebar for links). These initial attempts, with around 175 studios listed, are far from complete and we would very much welcome information and example prints to improve on this list. The site is a work in progress, started in 2019, with additions and amendments most days.

PLEASE, PLEASE, if you come across any examples of small sized portrait photos, or information about the photographers who took them, please consider sharing, via this site, so that these fascinating photographic survivals can become better recognised and understood.

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www.stickybacks.uk is a non-commercial web site for local and family historians, exploring smaller sized portrait photographs and those who worked in this trade.
This page was last modified: 13 September 2019, 08:56

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