02 Feb What Are Photoceramic Portraits?
Do you ever wonder what it felt like to witness the advent of photography? I’m still amazed that my cellphone, a pocket-sized device that I both love and despise, is at my disposal, ready to capture anything and everything for instantaneous sharing. What did it feel like to see the invention of an artform that rivaled the painting in accuracy, technique, and cost?
The artform I am referring to is the photoceramic portrait or porcelain enamel portrait. These photographs were popular memorial pieces, and you may have seen them in graveyards and mausoleums. Photoceramics are highly collectible photographs and treasured family keepsakes.
What are Photoceramic Portraits?
As early photography techniques developed, two French photographers, Bulot and Cattin, patented the first photoceramic method in 1854. They used a collodion process which transferred an image onto surfaces such as enamel or porcelain before firing the picture in a kiln. A rich and detailed history can be found at the Association of Dutch Enamilors.
Prior to the photoceramic portrait, miniature paintings were all the rage. The wealthy would commission a likeness to be worn in jewelry, framed on walls, or inserted in objects. The working class could afford photography, and photoceramic portraits had the look and the feel of a miniature painting. Many of the pieces were hand embellished to look like paintings, but they had an accuracy that a painter could never fully achieve. These portraits were created for both living and deceased individuals.
Europeans began to use photoceramics in memorials in the late 1800s. In his book Forgotten Faces: A Window into Our Immigrant Past, Horne writes, “Though patented by the French, it was the Italians who popularized portraits on tombstones. During the first decades of the 1900s, their use flourished throughout Eastern and Southern Europe.” Italian and Jewish immigrants continued this practice upon settling in the United States as a way “to maintain connections to family and culture in a foreign land.”2 It became so popular that Sears-Roebuck had a mail order service dedicated to photoceramics.
A common practice in memorial photography is post-mortem photography. Influenced by the Victorians, family members would hire a photographer to take a photograph of the deceased. It was often the only photograph taken of a person, and it was a treasured piece for the family.2 De Bernardi and Monastier write, “Most post-mortem photos are of children…a symbol of some sort such as a rose held downward, or a broken stem was included to indicate that the child had in fact died.”
The memorial portrait has evolved and fallen out of fashion since the early 1900s. Starting in the 1940s, many Catholic and Jewish cemeteries prohibited these memorials because the portraits were prone to vandalism and theft.1 Photoceramic portraits still exist today, although some manufacturers use modern techniques to create the prints and may not be as durable.
When handled properly, photoceramics are incredibly sturdy. Antique photoceramic portraits are “impermeable to moisture, resistant to fading, and will last more than a century without deterioration”.2 However, many have not been handled properly. Common damage includes:
Crazing and flaking: Photoceramics and other forms of photography are susceptible to crazing and flaking. This happens when a photograph is exposed to constantly shifting degrees of humidity. Tiny cracks run through a piece and portions of the emulsion can fall off or curl. If you have a photoceramic portrait at home, then you should store the image in an environment with stable humidity levels.
Vandalism and theft: Photoceramics are valuable. Memorial portraits or their copper fittings are stolen and sold to collectors. Photographs in gravestones are exposed to other dangers like being smashed or hit with a wayward rock from a lawnmower.
Improper cleaning: As professionals, we do not recommend DIY cleaning methods on antique photography. Using a harsh chemical cleaner could permanently damage the emulsion. If you need to clean a photoceramic, you should use water and a soft cloth.
Photoceramic portraits may not be as popular as they once were, but that doesn’t make them any less beautiful or fascinating. These images have tremendous meaning to the families that commissioned them, and they connect viewers to a person, time, and culture in a way that few objects can. Cellphones are cool, but antique photographs like photoceramics can help us time travel to the past.
Learn more about photo history in “Getting Started: Photo Restoration.”
1. Ronald Willian Horne, “Forgotten Faces: A Window into Our Immigrant Past,” Personal Genesis Publishing, 2004.
2. Carla De Bernardi and Laura Monastier, “Photoceramic Portraits. Un Unsuspected Cultural Heritage,” Youcanprint, 2020.