A Byerly Beauty
This ca. 1880s cabinet card portrait was taken by John Davis Byerly (1839-1914) at his studio on Frederick’s Market Street, founded by his father, Jacob Byerly (1807-1883), in 1842.
John joined his father’s business ca. 1863-1869, during which period their photographs bore the business name J. Byerly & Son.
Around 1869-1870, photographs began bearing the name J. Davis Byerly. In 1899, John retired and turned the business over to his son Charles Byerly (1874-1944), who ran the studio until it was destroyed in a building collapse in 1915.
A number of details, both of setting and of dress, place this photograph in the 1880s.
The advertising that fills the card’s reverse employs a japonisme decorative motif, with a bamboo frame accented with small blossoms.
The subject’s dress features mid- to late-1880s details such as a high round collar, relatively tight sleeves set high on the shoulder, a bodice decorated with buttons, dark velvet trim and tucks. Her hair is worn pulled back, low on the head, with curled bangs typical of the decade, as is her small, high-crowned hat, known as a “capote.”
Increasingly, photographers of the late 19th century used props and painted backgrounds to more closely approximate the naturalness of the best painted portraiture. Darrah distinguishes this more elaborate “staging” of a portrait from simple posing (William C. Darrah, Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography, 33).
Byerly may have been thinking of M.A. Root’s instructions in The Camera and The Pencil to “place the model in a very easy and graceful manner” (quoted in Darrah, Cartes, ).
Byerly posed his subject in a faux outdoor setting with fake grass, papier mache tree stump, and painted backdrop, as if the young woman were reading outside her home on a fine spring day. The light emanates from the upper right corner of the frame in imitation of natural sunlight.
The photograph’s decorative framing however, cannot compete with the simple, fresh, confident attractions of its young subject.
As usual, the information and interpretations of the portrait above rely on several key sources: Ross Kelbaugh’s Directory of Maryland Photographers 1839-1900, William C. Darrah’s Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography, and Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900.