The Billiard Room, Mentmore House / Roger Fenton

The Billiard Room, Mentmore House, about 1858, Roger Fenton. Albumen silver print, 11 15/16 x 12 1/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.27

Say hello to these dapper 19th-century ladies and gents playing billiards. They’re doing a good job looking natural, but the photograph is staged.

Why? Simple: Motion couldn’t be captured clearly in the six to seven seconds needed for an exposure in the 1850s. The players froze their “spontaneous” poses so photographer Roger Fenton could get the shot.

This photo is also interesting for another reason. It’s one of a small number of images from the mid-1800s taken inside a home. Lacking the natural light required for a clear exposure, interiors were just plain hard to photograph. That’s why most early exposures show either the outdoors or the carefully controlled conditions of a photographer’s studio.

The setting for this game of freeze-frame billiards is Mentmore House, a grand Victorian mansion built for the Rothschild family. (You may have seen it as the brooding Wayne Manor in Batman Begins). Roger Fenton, who frequently photographed Queen Victoria, was one of the few photographers of the day able to gain admittance to a private estate of this kind, making the print triply rare.

The room we see in the photo was originally designed as a conservatory, which explains the large windows lining the walls along the back and the (unseen) left. The space was converted into a billiard room only after the house was completed. This change accounts for the unusual amount of natural light flooding into the space during the day—a lucky bit of chance that permitted the photograph to be made. Yet even with every single curtain open (check those shadows!), the room still looks fairly somber by our standards.

The Billiard Room is included in the exhibition In Focus: Play (on view through May 10, 2015), which explores the entwined histories of leisure and photography. Today, posing for photographs is spontaneous fun. In 1858, it required a bit more patience and poise.