Photo Frames v Picture Frames

So what is the difference between a photo frame and a picture frame? Apart from the obvious: that photo frames are for holding photos, and picture frames for holding artwork; the answer is time. Frames for photographs are a comparatively recent phenomenon since the art of Baby photo framephotography is less than two centuries old. Frames for artwork, however, date back to the times of the Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Greeks. Borders were painted around different scenes on pottery and wall paintings, but an actual wooden frame dating back to the Second Century was discovered in an Egyptian tomb. It contained a portrait of a mummy and both were almost perfectly preserved.

Our ancestors would be amazed at today’s personalised photo frames. So let’s look through the wrong end of a telescope so to speak, and examine what frames were like centuries ago. It was in the Twelfth and Thirteenth centuries in Europe that carved wooden frames first appeared. They were made to surround works of art for churches and were hand carved and sometimes gilded, leaving a flat area in the centre for the image. This was the last part of the work to be completed and so the artist would have the completed surround to work with as he painted the image on the central flat panel. This method of producing a picture and frame from one slab of wood continued into the Fourteenth and Fifteenth centuries and were church-commissioned, the frame elements being ornamented with designs to reflect the architecture of the outside of the great cathedrals.

These framed works formed part of the structure of the churches and were by and large immobile. They were also very expensive to make. When it was realised that people would like to display art outside of the church, in their own homes, this method of framing was too costly and static and so the idea of mouldings was developed. The flat work of art would be surrounded by strips of wood that were mitred at the corners. These new frames were championed by wealthy patrons such as the Medici family, who were able to bring works of art into their grand estates by commissioning works of devotion and also portraits. This was the beginning of the popularity of mobile picture frames.

In the Sixteenth Century the wooden frames would have been made from oak, but pine became popular in the Seventeenth Century because it was lighter and easier to carve. During the Renaissance different woods were used on different occasions. Heavier wood was used for large pieces that were to be included on a church altar because they were structural supports as well as decoration. Pieces of wood were glued together to make the frames. For other frames the choice of wood was also determined by the use the frame was to be put to. Walnut, linden, poplar, elm and chestnut were all used, depending upon whether the frame had a structural element or was just for decorative purposes. Walnut was particularly favoured for its rich colour and was used in areas of fine detail, but pine or poplar would be used if the frame was to be gilded or painted.

When portraits of the monarchy or nobility were to be framed, the choice of wood to be used was directly related to the power and wealth of the individual. The more powerful the person, the more intricate the frame with expensive finishing. Such frames were made from ebony, walnut or tortoiseshell with perhaps ivory inlay. It was very time consuming to create the intricate and ornate details that were expected of picture frames at that time and so framers came up with a different method. Papier-mache was used for the first time in the Seventeenth Century and complicated designs could be made simply by pressing a pattern onto the frame.

In France during the reign of Francis I, 1515 — 1547, art became much more popular and therefore also picture frames. Many artists and craftsmen moved from Italy and frames began to be made by furniture builders instead of the artist or architect as they had been in the past. When Louis XIII was on the throne, 1610 – 1643 frames were heavily influenced by the court and they became more refined. The profiles of frames became thinner than their Italian predecessors and continuous designs with ribbons and leaves were popular. This was the predecessor of the Baroque style of picture frames, capturing ideas from Spanish, Flemish and Italian fashions. Baroque frames were bold and ornate with many embellishments, often based on nature with garlands of fruit entwined with scrolls and even cherubs.

The Victorian era saw a simplification of frames. An increasing number of people owned works of art and so the frames became more standardised so that they were easier to manufacture to meet the demand. To replace complex wooden decoration a material called composition, or ‘compo’, began to be used. It is a casting material that is high quality and very durable and is pressed into moulds to create the ornamentation. This decoration was then added to basic wooden frames. The skilled craftsmen who once worked directly with the wood of the frame instead began to create intricate moulds that showed elaborate and bold designs but also very subtle and detailed textures.

It became easy to mass produce frames in any style of the past. Although artists became very famous, the equally talented picture framers did not. This is perhaps reflected in the fact there there is no copyright law on picture frames and so anyone can make a frame that resembles an earlier one. The mass production techniques of the Victorian age meant that anyone could have the kind of frame they wanted. However, there was a rebellion in the late 1800s by artists who regarded the frame as being an integral part of their work. Impressionists such as Degas designed simple geometric frames for their work.

The rise of the middle classes after the industrial revolution meant that increasing numbers were able to afford to have works of art in their homes and often these would be family portraits. The cost of commissioning a portrait was still high but there was to be an invention that would ultimately lead to everyone having pictures of their family around their homes. Indeed the rapid development of the photographic industry was due to the demand of the newly created well off.

The earliest known surviving photograph was taken in either 1826 or 1827 by Joseph Nicephore Niepce and it is of a view of his estate in Burgundy, France. It was taken using a process known as heliography, where bitumen was coated onto a piece of glass or metal. The bitumen hardened according to the amount of light that hit it. However, at least eight hours, or even several days, were needed to fix the image, making these early attempts completely impractical.

Humans were first captured on a photograph by Louis Daguerre. He was taking a picture of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris and the exposure was seven minutes long. In this time many people walked through the shot, but were not in one place long enough to make an impression. However, a gentleman was standing and having his shoes polished and can be seen quite clearly in the image.

In 1839, in Philadelphia, the first selfie was taken. Robert Cornelius set up a camera and sat in front of the lens for just over a minute before rising and covering it. By 1847 a photograph depicting a man being arrested was the first time a photograph was used to depict news.

By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, photographic portraits began to be popular. Poses were not always rigidly formal, but the length of the exposure time meant that for many, a standard pose was the easiest. Families would go to photographic studios where sometimes elaborate sets were created with pot plants and furniture. When the pictures were printed they were often placed in albums, but special portraits would have found their way into frames on the mantelpiece.

There was a fashion for adding pressed or artificial flowers, either all around the photograph or just at the corners, before framing and special clips could be purchased for doing so. It also became popular for the person presenting a gift of a photograph to adapt the prefabricated frame in a personal way. Wooden frames were modified with skin, velvet or other textile that was embroidered or covered with other decorations. A passe-partout, where the photograph was sandwiched between either two pieces of glass or one piece of glass and a sheet of card and stuck together at the edges, would often be decorated with flowers. At first there would have been pressed, real flowers, but later they would have been cut from prints or drawings.

When photographs of landscapes and buildings became more common they were seen more as objects to be used as decoration. The framing of such photographs became increasingly like the framing of pictures, with the style and decor of the house playing a significant part. However, it is usual for photographs to be placed in frames that are simpler and less fussy than those of paintings.

During the Twentieth Century it became common for photographic studios to send out the prints in cardboard mounts. These served the purpose of enhancing the photographs and providing space for an advertisement for the studio, previously often stamped on the back of the print. These mounted photographs could easily be placed in frames by the customer, with the mount adding to the effect of the frame. It became popular for sporting groups and cultural groups such as choirs to have team photographs taken and these were almost always presented in the cardboard mounts, leaving it to the recipients to decide whether or not to frame them.

Of course, we can all remember our school photographs. Studios would have a contract with the school to take the photographs and at first these were limited to the group pictures of the whole school. Perhaps it was parents, finding it difficult to find their offspring in the long and crowded prints, who asked for individual photos, or maybe the photographers spotted an opportunity, but photographs of individual pupils, or family groups, became popular. Again, it would be up to the parents who bought the pictures whether they kept them in the cardboard mounts or put them into frames at home.

Photo frames have changed in style and appearance as fashions have changed, but some classics will always be popular. A silver frame is a standard for Christening pictures and any light coloured metal will suit wedding photographs too, without the frame from detracting from the portraits. Wood is still popular for photo frames, both with mitred and straight corners and, of course, the advent of plastics has led to an abundance of choice.

One of the more recent innovations has been the ability to print on almost any material. This has led to glass photo frames with coloured or fancy borders and engraving into wooden frames by machinery to replace the laborious carving of years gone by. The advent of such machinery has meant that frames can be personalised in ways that the Victorians, with their hand made decoration, could never have dreamt of. Names and dates are easily added to the photo frame for events such as births, Christenings, graduations and weddings. Titles can be applied to the frames of pictures to mark special days such as Mother’s Day and Father’s day. New grandparents can be presented with framed pictures with the baby’s names as well as their brand new titles of Granny and Grandpa. The list of personalisations is almost endless, with ideas for friends and every relative and occasion.