|What constitutes “whiteness”? John Jabez Edwin Mayall was one of the most technically and artistically accomplished of the early photographers. His portraits would have commanded high prices, and the two young women posed here, who look alike enough to be sisters, come from the upper class of Philadelphia society. We can see this in the expensive clothes they wear, their elaborately curled hair, and in their jewelry ― the young woman on the left holds a pencil on a long gold chain. |
But wealth alone is not enough to mark whiteness. Is whiteness marked by skin tone or facial features or style of hair? Or does it also involve more subtle social cues? Whiteness in mid-19th century America was a virtually indispensible qualification for access to the higher reaches of society. Where do we see this in what is an otherwise normal portrait? Does the whiteness of these young woman lie also in their self-possession, the ease of their unusually relaxed and intimate portrait, in which they casually lock arms, one of them smiling gently at us? It is a portrait like this that reminds us that most early photography was made for the clients closest friends and family. What characteristics did this one seek to convey, and to what extent can we read the privileges and power of whiteness even in such an image? Consider that Mayall was successful enough to become an official photographer of Queen Victoria in England. Mayall produced carte-de-visite portraits of the queen and her family for sale to the public, such as the one below of the queen and the children morning her husband and their father, Prince Albert (1819-1861).
The royal family was one of the touchstones for what it meant to be white in that time. What qualities would Mayall have had to be able to convey in his portraiture to have this degree of success, and how do these features differ from the photographs of people excluded from the category of white?