"Stickybacks" and other smaller sizes of portrait photographs: What is this site all about?
Throughout the history of portraiture in the UK a minority of professional photographers have gone against the trend by introducing cheaper but inferior products in order to develop new markets. Those new markets comprised those who had not at that point been able to afford a likeness in one of the current products on offer. For example, the miniature artist was undercut by the silhouette cutter, then by the Daguerreotypist. Competition with the Daguerreotype then came from those producing cheaper but inferior Ambrotypes.
By the 1870s/80s the carte de visite and cabinet photograph were the long established and popular portrait formats of the day, when a number of professional photographers introduced cheaper ferrotypes. The Ferrotype was a photographic process first developed in the 1850s which had attracted a wide following in the United States. The Ferrotype was generally inferior to most existing output from High Street studios, but had an advantage in cost and speed of production. A turning point came when small postage stamp sized ferrotypes were inserted into ornamental mounts, the size of the existing carte de visite. The resulting "American Gem" Ferrotypes had the advantage of a lower price, rapid production and the ability to fit into the ubiquitous family photo album. The rise in UK Ferrotype studios was relatively short-lived, but the Ferrotype continued in use well into the 20th Century mainly in the hands of itinerant, travelling and while-you-wait photographers. The story of the Ferrotype in 19th Century Britain is set out here in Audrey Linkman's excellent article "Cheap Tin Trade: The Ferrotype Portrait in Victorian Britain"
Moving on, we find, from the 1890s to 1920s, the professional photographers' regular portrait products remained the cabinet photograph and carte de visite, plus various mounted enlargements. From around 1904 postcard format portraits became popular. With a postcard printed reverse, these could be used for postal communication as well as collecting in postcard albums. The Ferrotype was still being produced by while-you-wait practitioners at fairs, the seaside and other places where crowds could be found. There were a number of other efforts by a minority of UK photographers to tap into new markets with "cheap work", developing smaller, less expensive, portrait formats, saving on materials, and marketed these as alternatives, sometimes as novelties, to those who, until this point, may not have been able to afford more traditional photographic products. The smaller size portrait photographer made the process not only more affordable, but also fun. Operators in this field rarely used newspaper advertising and were more likely to entice customers by huge poster advertisements plastered over their shop fronts or by employing touts to shout at or accost passers-by. The ensuing public interest occasionally necessitated the employment of a doorman to keep order and very occasionally excited crowds attracted police interest. Many clients of this cheap work 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. Specific names were given at the time to some of these smaller formats (for example "stickybacks", "midgets" and "stamps") but there was a lot of variation and lack of precision in nomenclature and sometimes these terms were interchangeable.
This site is dedicated to the practitioners of the smaller size portrait photograph trade and their products its purpose is to help family and local historians to recognise and appreciate some of these photographic scraps.
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 ubiquitous 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 more affordable.
Smaller sized portrait photos may crop up pasted into family albums or as loose additions. 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 200 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.
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.
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