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January 20, 2021

In the Victorian Era, Posing Stands Were Used for the Living, And Never to Pose a Dead Person

In recent years a myth has developed online that attributes these stands to the specific use of posing post mortem subjects. There is no basis in fact in that story. A cursory examine of a typical stand will show that it could not support the body weight of even a child. These stands were used to assist in holding the subjects head still during the photographic process.

In the early days of photography the film they used was a much slower speed then what people alive today who remember using film ever used. This just means that the film wasn’t as sensitive to light and required much longer exposure times – upwards of a minute or more; studio photography was especially difficult with long exposures times when combined with the lack of modern lighting and flashes like we have today.

Initially, exposure time could be half an hour or an hour – but this was for landscapes, never for portraiture. By 1839, when the daguerreotype was invented, the longest exposures were a minute and a half. By the 1850s, they were three to eight seconds.

“When people talk about long exposure, it sounds like people had to wait for half an hour,” said Mike Zohn, a longtime photographer and the owner of Obscura Antiques in New York. “They did not. But an exposure of even one second is long enough to allow for blurring. So they had posing stands.”

Many times, pictures of posing stands are used to convince people how the Victorians posed a dead body. In fact, it’s a demonstration of how to pose a living person. A posing stand was not intended to hold up a dead person.

A Victorian posing stand.

A Victorian posing stand.

So these braces and posing tables were used to help people stay still during the long exposures, and even then you’ll often notice some blurring in old photos... usually the hands. It’s also one of the reasons attributed to people not smiling in the early photos – try and hold a “natural” smile (or any spontaneous pose) for a minute or more without looking goofy! In a letter to the Sacramento Daily Union, Mark Twain wrote, “A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.”


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