Skip Navigation

Portraits and Poses: Early Twentieth Century Photography

A collection of nearly 1000 negatives from the Hibbs Collection has recently been digitised, providing a fascinating glimpse into Dorset life from 1910-1920 and World War One.

Dorset History Centre holds a fascinating series of photographs depicting Swanage life, taken between 1870 and 1950 by HR Hibbs (reference: D-1330). Within this collection are a series of 949 nitrate based photographs of Swanage and its residents taken around 1910-1920, including photographs of troops taken abroad after 1918.

The photos are on a cellulose nitrate base, technology first made available to the public by Eastman in the late 19th Century. Although it was the first base of its kind it also deteriorates over time, giving off acidic chemicals that are dangerous if inhaled. Nitrate is also highly flammable and resulting fires are hard to extinguish. Therefore the nitrate has been kept at cold temperatures, which slows down the deterioration process.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises in the photographs is the array of smiling subjects, a contrast to the expectation of dour faces in nineteenth century portraits. The Hibbs collection shows the changing face of photography at this time, as it includes more traditional portraiture as well as the rise of candid snaps.

Say 'prunes'

Photography had, at first, been the preserve of the wealthy and early portraits were similar to their painted cousins. This, coupled with the slow shutter speeds of early cameras meant that people were usually not shown smiling. In one Victorian studio subjects were told to say 'prunes' to achieve the small mouth shape favoured at the time. There are many formal portraits in the collection, featuring men in suits or army uniform and it is clear that the subjects have carefully chosen their clothes.


The collection also features candid snaps, a form of photography that gained popularity after 1900 and remains the most popular way to take photographs today.  Encouraging people to take photographs of holidays, leisure and pleasure has been attributed to the Kodak Company, who had the monopoly on cameras at this time. Kodak also published the majority of early books and manuals on the subject of photography both for amateurs and professionals, incorporating its own ideas about what made a good photo.


World War One

The gallery below is only a small portion of the photographs of uniformed men in the collection, many of whom are part of the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner of the Royal Air Force. One of the photographs features two sailors from HMS Minotaur, which was part of the blockade of Germany in the North Sea and participated (but did not fire in) the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The ship was scrapped in 1919.


Post-war realities

The biggest surprise of the digitisation process was uncovering photographs of soldiers with backdrops that didn't appear to be British. As these photographs have only been digitised recently, no research on their content has yet been done. However, using contextual clues, the evidence would lead us to assume that the below photographs were taken in both France and/or Belgium (the first two images) and Germany (the second two images) sometime after 1918, when a British force occupied land around the German city of Cologne.

Some of these pictures capture the realities of war, destroyed buildings and soldiers in front of barbed wire. Other photographs point to soldiers, or the photographer, having enjoyed some time off, including trips to the zoo, to the cathedral and lake swimming.


Lisa Mitchell, Digital Resources Intern

Powered by GOSS iCM