Halloween Terror: The Glass-Eyed Ghouls

In the mid 1800s, people began appearing with eyes so clear they were nearly invisible.  The ghostly faces stared straight ahead without a hint of shame in their alien faces. They haunt us still, following us from countless daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and cartes-de-visite, warning us of a different time.  A fearful era when to be photogenic meant being brown-eyed. The blue-eyed subject was a fright!


If light was the “photographer’s pencil” (as an 1866 manual described it), in the hands of an amateur it could create a mess of distortion and shadow.  Without proper direction, blue and gray eyes, unable to reflect the light, were overexposed.   The Photographic Art Journal from 1853 recommended limiting the exposure time for blue-eyed subjects, “otherwise the eyes are lost” (Volume 5, p. 356). In those early years of photography, the best option for the light-eyed was to avoid looking directly into the camera, but as a writer in Humphrey’s Journal complained,

It is not an uncommon fault among our less experienced operators to give a front view of the face of nearly every individual regardless of any particular form, and this is often insisted upon by the sitter, who seems to think the truth of the picture exists principally in the eyes staring the beholder full in the face.  (February 1853 p. 329)

parson_brownellImages affected by the creepy-eye phenomenon could be darkened. The cartes-de-visite of William Brownlow, at right, show two different images of Brownlow, one with untouched light eyes and the other with darkened irises. Who would you prefer to meet handing out Halloween candy?

The most successful method for dealing with the problem was to fix the eyeline on a spot away from the camera.  An averted gaze and a turned profile might lack the directness of a forward stare but it eliminated the risk of a portrait with an “expression vacant, dull and pale, soulless eyes, like those of a dead codfish” (Photographic Art Journal, p. 117).

As AAS wishes everyone a happy Halloween, we leave you with a final scare: another solution, though less-recommended, to add pupils oneself with ink.


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