Vienna, Virginia, circa 1920. “H.A. Money.” The undertaker Howard A. Money (1859-1931). National Photo Company Collection glass negative.
This strange photograph appeared on the vintage photo website Shorpy.com, always an entertaining way to waste some time. It records a Virginian undertaker in the early 20th century.
The frontal and symmetric composition has all the grace of a passport photo and it’s something you instinctively avoid in portraits as it looks gauche. The subject is dumped in the centre of the frame and stares back dumbly with no protective cover. It’s a style without rhetoric – there’s no posing from the sitter and no artistic flourish from the photographer.
Still, it has the advantage of a certain honesty. The subject is unguarded and more open, and the transaction with the photographer is more straightforward – just capture the likeness.
August Sander, the most august of all portrait photographers, occasionally employed this frontal pose, notably in the two examples below.
August Sander, The painter Anton Räderscheidt, Cologne, 1927