TABER, ISAAC WEST (1830–1912)
Isaac West Taber was born in New Bedford, Massa- chusetts on August 17, 1830. In 1854, Taber opened a daguerrotype studio in the town, and with his brother Freeman Augustus Taber, subsequently ran a studio in Syracuse, New York, 1857–1864. Taber then moved to San Francisco, operating on behalf of Bradley & Ru- lofson until opening his own gallery in 1871. He took over Carleton Watkins Gallery in 1876.
Taber exhibited prominently in the 1877 San Francisco Art Association show, and the Mechanics’ Institute Ex- hibition in 1880. In 1880, he published Photographic Album of Principal Business Houses, Residences and Persons, as a promotional venture, and photographed Kalakaua, King of Hawaii during a Pacific cruise. In 1885 Taber developed a method for enlarging and print- ing fingerprints, and opened a factory for dryplates. In 1894 Taber obtained exclusive rights to photograph within the grounds of the San Francisco Midwinter Fair, and in 1897 opened a branch of the Taber Bas Relief Photographic Syndicate in London.
Taber’s studio was totally destroyed in the San Fran- cisco earthquake of 1906, including 80 tons of portrait negatives. He died at his home in San Francisco on February 22, 1912.
Taber, I. W. Glacier Point 3,201 feet, Yosemite, Cal.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © The J. Paul Getty Museum.
The tableau is a combination of visual and theatrical arts, consisting of costumed figures arranged in static poses so as to create the effect of a picture. In the nineteenth century, the tableau vivant, or living picture, imitating a well-known work of art or literary passage, was tre- mendously popular both as a private amusement and as public entertainment. In their most elaborate form, carefully posed and lit tableaux were staged behind large gilt frames, covered with a layer of gauze that imitated the effect of varnish on an old painting (Stevenson, 45). Tableaux flourished during photography’s first half-cen- tury, especially in Britain, where the two phenomena, tableaux and photography, often coincided. Not only did figures holding still in a tableau lend themselves to being photographed, but to make an artistic or picto- rial photograph with figures, one in effect had first to construct a tableau.
Carroll, Lewis. Tableau with Xie Kitchin as the Damsel in distress with St. George and the Dragon.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © The J. Paul Getty Museum.
With roots in medieval and Renaissance pageants, the modern tableau emerged in the eighteenth century. In his writings on the theater of the 1750s and 1760s, Denis Diderot argued that stage productions should create emotional and moral effect like the best painting of the day by presenting deliberate tableaux at critical moments in the drama. In Naples in the late eighteenth century, Lady Emma Hamilton famously assumed fro- zen “attitudes” after figures on Greek vases and ancient statues. This activity would soon be echoed in a music hall entertainment, the pose plastique, where partially dressed figures assumed positions suggesting classical statuary (Stevenson, 57). In 1809, Goethe prominently featured the practice of staging tableaux vivants in his novel Elective Affinities. Tableaux vivants became especially popular in Great Britain when the Scottish painter Sir David Wilkie, having witnessed in a Ger- man theater a tableau after a painting by David Teniers, began arranging figures after famous paintings and literary works. In his most well known examples, based on the stories of Sir Walter Scott, Wilkie constructed elaborate scenes requiring weeks’ preparation, all for brief performance (Stevenson, 46). The amusement of staging tableaux was enjoyed among the highest classes of British society, including the royal family.
In 1845 David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson photographed a number of tableaux after Scott featur- ing medieval costumes, using as models friends who were practiced in the art of assuming characters and holding poses from having enacted tableaux. These
works related both to literary painting of the day and to the contemporary craze for tableaux vivants. They also helped to initiate a trend of fictional photographs in which groups of two or more figures enact a scene for the photographer. As with tableaux, such images might refer to historical or allegorical themes, or to recogniz- able moments from everyday life.
William Lake Price, who created elaborate costume photographs after literary sources such as Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe in the mid-1850s, noted the diffi- culty of photographing figure groups, attempts at which marked much ambitious art photography in the Victorian era. When O.G. Rejlander produced his intricate com- position photograph The Two Ways of Life in 1857, he was trying to exceed the limitations of photography in rendering complex figural arrangements, by combining a number of discrete tableaux into a larger scene that itself resembled an elaborate tableau vivant. It has often been noted that Rejlander employed professional models from a troupe of pose plastique actors, accustomed to partial nudity and long poses, for The Two Ways of Life, and it has been suggested that some of the negative criti- cism directed toward the work may have derived from the picture’s associations with the “debased art form” of commercial tableaux vivants and poses plastiques (Daniel, 15).
Rejlander more directly copied specific paintings in a number of studies, made after the old masters, in which, wrote the critic A.H. Wall in The Photographic News of 31 December 1886, “he selected models, illuminated, and posed them in imitation of some of the grandest mas- terpieces in the public galleries, and then photographed them” (Wall, n.p.). Wall recommended this practice as the best training for an aspiring art photographer, who, like Wilkie with his tableaux, needs to know how to make pictures out of living models. The problem of the imperfect model as opposed to the idealized figures of painting was often noted in mid-century photographic criticism, suggesting that photographs of pictorial or literary subjects were tainted by the intermediate step of needing to construct a tableau with real people as actors. At the same time, however, there was quite a vogue in British photography for just such images among profes- sionals and amateurs alike.
Both Henry Peach Robinson and Lewis Carroll frequently staged scenes that were meant to conjure up paintings or that made literary reference. Whereas Robinson’s efforts are professional in the extreme, us- ing hired models and carefully constructed scenarios, Carroll’s tableaux involving children, such as St. George and the Dragon, ca. 1874, are notable for their play- ful, amateurish quality. For her Studies of the 1860s, Viscountess Clementina Hawarden, while spurning period costumes and props, posed her figures in attitudes reminiscent of paintings as well.
A new dimension was added to the photographic tableau with the advent of stereoscopic photography. From the 1850s through the 1880s and beyond, narrative tableaux became a staple of commercially published stereographic cards internationally. This hugely popular form came to involve extensive story-telling sequences of photographic tableaux, common at the turn of the century (Henisch and Henisch, 70–77).
Among art photographers, perhaps the work of Julia Margaret Cameron most consistently and ambitiously incorporates the tableau. Her Madonnas and saints, allegorical figures, and subjects from poetry involve servants, family, or friends costumed and arranged in sometimes quite elaborate mises en scène. These works, enacted wholly for the camera, often allude to the amateur theatrical, with spare, makeshift stages and distinctly non-professional actors. For one of her last and most involved projects, Cameron in 1874 spent several months, and enlisted dozens of models, to produce twelve large-scale photographic images of Arthurian subjects to illustrate a volume of her friend Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (Bajac, 5). Critics and historians in the mid-twentieth century would con- demn such works of the Victorian art photographers as misguided attempts to produce “imitation paintings,” preferring, in the case of Cameron, her simple and direct portraits to her fanciful literary scenes. With the shift to a postmodern aesthetic in the late twentieth century, however, the practice of staging fictional scenes again came into prominence in photography, and with
it a renewed appreciation for the role of the tableau in nineteenth-century photography.