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The headrest was an essential piece of equipment in the nineteenth century portrait studio, and was sold by photographic suppliers well into the twentieth century.
A pair of shears hangs from the iron rod of a spare headrest in this carte de visite by "Samuel Nixon, Photographer, South Australia."

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The use of the headrest dates back to the earliest years of photography, and when commenting on the fact that Daguerre believed that portraits by his daguerreotype process were not possible due to the long exposures required the Athenaeum (August 1839) suggested that ‘the head could be fixed by means of supporting apparatus.’

No matter how cold, hard and uncomfortable the headrest may have been, it was not the ‘instrument of torture’ it was sometimes said to be, and it seems poor technique was responsible for any bad reputation the instrument may have acquired. Under some conditions the exposure for a portrait needed to be anything from 20 seconds to one minute, and it is obvious that any movement of the head would result in a blurring of the image and a negative that would have to be remade.

Hrestcla.jpg (21402 bytes) Left: The need for a head rest to prevent the head swaying during the long exposures needed in the early days of photography gave cartoonists the opportunity to invent instruments of torture that immobilised the whole body.

In 1869 Robinson wrote, ‘A well-posed figure may be easily upset by a bungling use of the head-rest. (Let us lay it down as an axiom that this instrument is indispensable, even for short exposures, say of five or six seconds.) The rest should be understood, in ordinary cases, to be a delicate support, not a rigid fixture against which the figure is to lean. There is another rule that photographers should regard as axiomatic: the rest should be moved to the head, not the head to the rest: first the pose, then the rest; not first the rest, and then the pose.’

In 1868 William Lake Price had also emphasised the need for care when using the headrest which he said was indispensable. Sitters in general claimed they did not need a head-rest, he wrote, imagining they could remain ‘perfectly immoveable’ during the exposure. His advice to operators was that they must ‘not on that account discontinue its use, as failures and loss of time are the inevitable results.’ He said ‘the best, indeed the only way, to use it properly, is to let the sitter go into a natural position of the body and head, and then gently to advance the crutch until it just touches him.‘’ The illustration below shows three types of headrest he had found ‘satisfactory’.

Hrestlak.jpg (13826 bytes) left: A headrest for use behind a chair.

Centre: A large headrest for standing figures. The arm and crutch at the top steady the head while a cushion on the vertical stand steadies the upper body, preventing any swaying movement.

Right: a headrest designed for attachment to the back of a posing chair.

In 1867 a Melbourne photographer, G.W. Perry, advertised ‘New and Important Discovery. Abolition of Torture in Photography, Head-Rests used no longer.’ He claimed that through his research into the chemistry of photography he had discovered a rapid process which allowed him to ‘dispense with the use of the head-rest, which is so universally objected to.’ There was probably more truth in a later statement (1880) made by the Temple of Light studio (q.v.) in Rundle Street, Adelaide, which had adopted the new and much faster gelatine dry-plate process. The studio was advertising its ‘instantaneous’ process which allowed portraits to be taken in ‘about two seconds’. The Register referred only to the 'inconvenience' of the head rest. ‘It is very much more comfortable to sit for only a moment to have a portrait taken, without the inconvenience of having the head pilloried in an iron rest.’

Hrestgrl.jpg (9093 bytes) Left: A head rest with heavy cast iron base and column can be seen in the right background of this studio portrait. The base of a head rest can often be seen behind the feet of male patrons to a studio, but is usually concealed by the crinolines or voluminous skirts of the ladies. Occasionally the base of the head rest can be seen to be a large block of wood. The column and base of the head rest is sometimes hidden by a carefully draped curtain brought in from one side.

In 1887 a manual for photographers again pointed out the need for care when using the much-maligned headrest. ‘The headrest is an instrument against which many have a prejudice, but this is merely because it is at times used without discretion. We often hear people who have been photographed talking of having their heads ‘clamped up in a machine.’ There is no excuse for doing this, as it is quite unnecessary. When the rest is used, the sitter should be first posed without any regard to it, and then gently supported by the instrument at the head and waist.’

Another manual published in 1904, and intended for the amateur photographer, the author said that some people could not remain steady for even one or two seconds and that in attempting to hold the pose they acquired an unpleasant expression. For that reason he recommended one of the lighter forms of headrest that could be attached to the back of an ordinary chair.

Although more sensitive plates and faster lenses allowed photographers to gradually dispense with the headrest, it was still available as a studio accessory from South Australian photographic suppliers as late as 1916. Harrington’s catalogue for 1910-11 offered the Globe headrest, a ‘new and handsome design’, which appears to have been the same article as the ‘Aristo’ headrest which was advertised by Kodak in the Australasian Photo-Review for December 1910. Both had slotted earprongs and through their scissor action could be adjusted to suit the heads of different sitters. There must have been a continuing demand for headrests as in the APR for May 1916 Kodak advertised the Century headrest which had a simple ‘U’ shaped crutch and could be ‘instantly adjusted to any height and position,’ and was heavy enough ‘to prevent toppling.’

Hresthar.jpg (4695 bytes) Hrestkod.jpg (3224 bytes) Far Left : Kodak's Aristo head rest, 1910. "A very great improvement on the old style heavy and cumbersome rests." Harrington's Globe head rest was indentical. "This is the latest in head rests. The slotted ear prongs unquestionably the best yet invented. Price 30/-.

Left: Kodak's Century Head Rest, 1916. "Is solid and substantially constructed, and takes the place of the rests fitted with the unsightly clamp heretofore furnished, and is of sufficient weight to prevent toppling. Price 25/-"