If you collect vernacular photography, chances are that you have come across portraits in front of backdrops featuring hand-painted scenery. But have you ever wondered about their history? Hand-painted scenic backdrops were popular in portrait photography studios from the 1860s until the 1920s. They often depicted landscapes or elaborate architectural interiors, sometimes with a trompe-l’oeil effect. Unique and beautiful works of art in their own right, the backdrops were often made of raw cotton duct fabric and tempera paint or chalk. The two largest producers of scenic backdrops were Engelmann & Schneider in Dresden, Germany and L.W. Seavey in New York City. As Robert Taft writes in Photography and the American Scene: “To Seavey, in large measure, must go the credit, or the blame, for the introduction of the painted background. He rose to fame during the seventies, making a specialty of manufacturing accessories for the photographic gallery.”
As handheld cameras gained popularity, people lost interest in the constructed landscape, preferring to be photographed in real locations and the backdrops fell out of fashion. Today, the backdrops can offer clues to a photograph’s provenance and can aide in genealogical research. The following selection of photographs showcase the unique backdrops and how they were used at the height of their popularity.