Derbyshire Photographers Profiles : A Tour of Mr. Seaman's Studio
Derbyshire Photographers & Photographic Studios

A Tour of Mr. Seaman's Studio
transcribed and with a commentary by John Bradley of Ashover, Derbyshire

We are fortunate that an account survives of an 1886 tour of Alfred Seaman's Chesterfield studios. An un-named journalist wrote a fascinating report that appeared in the Derbyshire Times on Saturday 29th May 1886, reproduced here with accompanying commentary.

Mr. A. Seaman’s Photographic Establishment
Derbyshire Times
Saturday 29th May 1886

Amongst many comparatively new industries of Chesterfield, one that has made great progress in a few years is that of Mr.A.Seaman’s Photographic Establishment in Brewery Street and Corporation Street, Chesterfield.  Although Mr. Seaman only came to Chesterfield in a small way in 1880, he has now made such progress since that time that he now ranks amongst the first photographers in the country.

He has not only been very successful in the ordinary lines of photography, but by going beyond these lines and visiting all the places of interest and beauty in Derbyshire, he has, by using the best materials, been able to secure some very excellent photographs of these interesting places, and has placed them before the public at very low prices.

On account of the rapid increase in his business he has had, on many occasions, to enlarge his premises to meet the increasing demands of the public, and he has just lately been making more considerable improvements and enlargements.

The bright enthusiastic style of the local reporter is found little changed today in our local papers, ever keen to heap praise on a potential advertiser and patron.  The description of Alfred as ranking "amongst the first [i.e. finest] photographers in the country," sounds a little exaggerated but he did indeed achieve such recognition amongst his peers nationally.  The remark that Alfred had made several enlargements to his studio seems reasonable, and we know that he moved to larger premises on Brewery Street, and then opened additional premises on Corporation Street.
Alfred Seaman in his studio - Image Courtesy of John Bradley
Image Courtesy of John Bradley
His establishments are situated in Brewery Street and Corporation Street, Chesterfield and on entering the former place, the visitor is conducted into the large photographic studio filled up with all the necessary blinds etc., to regulate the amount of light required.  On one side of this is a waiting room and a dressing room and around the studio are various objects used for the sake of giving effect to the photographs, namely balconies, cabinets, old oak, stones, ornamental chairs etc., etc.  At the further end of the room are arranged a large number of Seavey’s celebrated backgrounds and several local backgrounds taken from photographs, and notably Chatsworth Gardens, with the Emperor Fountain playing.  All these are so constructed that with very little trouble backgrounds required can be let down by ropes and pulleys, and by these means a visitor may be taken so as to appear almost in any place he wishes.  He can appear to be by the seaside, or in Chatsworth Gardens, or in the precincts of a large mansion.
This is a nice contemporary description of a Victorian studio.  It would have normally operated as a “daylight studio” with light coming through large windows in a north-facing wall and skylights.  In the changing rooms customers would have been tidied up and made to look their best – even sometimes being loaned items of clothing or accessories.  The style of Victorian photographic portraits was taken directly from the earlier style of painted portraits.  The sitter was shown in an idealised way, in surroundings designed to imply wealth and status.  So the local bank clerk was photographed in a setting made to look like a drawing room at Chatsworth, and with the accessories that implied learning (a book), good taste (ornate furniture) and wealth (a view of ornate gardens).  ‘Seaveys celebrated backgrounds’ operated rather like small scale painted theatrical backdrops.
In this studio can be seen all the latest improvements in cameras, stands and other photographic apparatus and numerous lenses of various sizes by such well known makers as Dallmeyer and Ross.  Here must also be mentioned a very clever invention of Mr. Seaman’s, by which instantaneous photographs can be easily obtained, which are very essential in the case of children or animals.  This Mr. Seaman has contrived very effectively to do by means of a pneumatic shutter, which, by pressing a bulb at the end of a long indiarubber tube, causes a pair of bellows to expand which raises a slide and so the lens is exposed for as long a time as the operator desires, for, on releasing the bulb, the shutter drops back into its original position.
The "clever invention of Mr. Seaman’s" sounds very much like a standard pneumatic bulb of the time.  Certainly not an invention of Alfred’s, although he may have designed his own version of the gadget.  Perhaps we can be charitable and assume that the reporter misunderstood what Alfred told him!
Leading out of this studio is a dark room in which the developing process is carried on, and round which, on shelves, are arranged all the chemicals necessary for the perfect development of both dry and wet plates, the former being now generally used.  And by means of coloured blinds, no white light which would affect the negative is admitted.

On the other side of the studio is the re-touching room and store room for negatives.  In this room is carried on one of the most important branches of the photographic art, namely that of touching up the negatives which causes a considerable improvement in the finished photos.

From this room we follow the negative into the printing room where shelves, which are arranged on all sides, are packed with frames and negatives, there being upwards of 300 frames here, the greater part of which are in use.

The early photographic processes used a number of hazardous chemicals, and this was long before the time of "Health & Safety at Work" or COSH legislation. Many early photographers died surprisingly early, and it is widely believed that many of them were victims of their own developing chemicals.

The printing would have been done in a room in which only very low-level red light was allowed. This red light did not affect the undeveloped negative and so spoil the photograph.

The ‘re-touching’ would have been carried out by a skilled assistant, usually a woman, who would remove blemishes from the negative before printing.  Skillful retouching was a much sought after skill, and could make the difference between a high-class photograph and a cheap snap.

The "300 frames" referred to were printing frames.  At this time photographs were printed on "Printing Out Paper (POP)".  The glass negative was clamped on to the light sensitive POP paper in a printing frame, and exposed to natural light until the image formed on the paper.  The printed image was then made permanent or "fixed" in hypo, and thoroughly washed – the stage of the process described next in our article.

From this room we pass into the toning and fixing room in which we notice a large washing machine which is used for thoroughly washing the prints, making them permanent and, which we were informed, is also M. Seaman’s invention.  It consists of a large circular zinc tin, out of which a syphon works to run off the surplus water.  An inner zinc tin with a gauze bottom fits into this, the prints are laid upon this gauze, through which the water permeates, and by this means the prints are thoroughly cleansed of all the hypo, more effectually than by the ordinary washer without any damage being done to the prints.

From this room we enter the sensitising room where the paper upon which the photographs are printed is sensitised.  The sensitising solution is always kept up to between 50 and 60 grains in silver, thus making the photographs permanent.  The full sized paper is allowed to float upon this solution for a given time, when it is drawn over a glass rod, fixed at one end of the dish and hung up till quite dry, it being then cut up into the sizes most in use.  In these two rooms nothing but coloured light is admitted, which is regulated by blinds etc.

We see from this last paragraph that at this time Alfred was making his own light sensitive printing paper.  This rather messy and complicated process had the advantage of being inexpensive, and ensuring that the paper used was fresh.  It is probable that as the years went on the studios, like many others, would have turned to using factory-produced paper.
We then proceed into an absolutely dark room which is called the enlarging room where, by means of lenses, photographs are enlarged to almost any size.  Mr. Seaman has been able to almost perfect this branch of the business by several inventions, which, we understand, have been adopted by many photographers throughout the Kingdom.
It is likely that at this time Alfred was using a method of enlargement that involved ‘projecting’ the image from a negative through a series of enlarging lenses on to the light sensitive paper, rather like using a magic lantern.
At the back of the premises in Brewery Street is a large covered space in which the printing may be carried on even in wet weather, there being large stands upon which the frames containing the negatives can be exposed.  Here also is a space especially adapted for taking groups and animals and a grass bank is being constructed for a similar purpose.
A large area for group photographs would have been a useful facility.  At this period it was common for wedding parties to go to the photographer’s studio, rather than have the photographer attend the service, and a large area in which to assemble them was sometimes needed.  To date no examples of "groups or animals" on the "grass bank" have been discovered. The reporter next moves from the studio in Brewery Street to the more formal "shop" in Corporation Street.
Proceeding to the premises in Corporation Street, we pass into a large shop in which photographs framed, coloured and otherwise, are exposed for sale, besides albums and everything connected with the sale of photographs and at the back of this establishment is a room in which the photographs are finally finished, there being numerous machines for rolling and burnishing the mounted or unmounted photographs, and here also the prints are mounted and grained according to the use they are designated for.

Round the room is a very large stock of all kinds and sizes of mounts and frames, as well as glasses for mounting the medallions.  In this room are also stocked the negatives which are each numbered and preserved in case of being again wanted.

In another room is carried on the sorting and colouring and other minor details.  Every Department seems to be managed in the most methodical manner and before visiting the Establishment we had little idea of the amount of work required in preparing a single photograph.

From these final paragraphs it is clear that the Corporation Street premises also acted as the "finishing workshop" where prints were prepared for framing. This branch also held the stock of glass negatives that would be carefully stored in the hope that a customer would call back one day for additional copies.

Has Pleasure in drawing attention to the
Extensive Alterations and Enlargement of
Whereby he is enabled to take indoors or outdoors
Photographs on his OWN PREMISES on the

A.S.  is also prepared to attend, at short notice,

For the Purpose of Photography.
A.S. is now supplying with ONE DOZEN
CARTES, permanent enlargements made with the 
latest improved Process, beautifully framed.
Size of frame 24in. by 19in., for 20s. Larger Sizes
At equally low prices.

Derbyshire Times Saturday May 29th 1886

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