Carte de Visite

Carte de Visite

In the 1840s, it was tough to make two identical copies of a single photograph. The daguerreotype process, the first commercial photographic process of 1839, produced only one image, while the rival calotype process, from which copies could be made, was unpredictable in quality, the crisp paper images tending to fade. The introduction of a new and cheaper process, which used wet collodion to produce durable photographic negatives on a glass plate, heralded the start of an exciting new era: general portrait photography at reasonable prices was launched. The idea was announced by the English inventor, Frederick Scott Archer, in “The Chemist” in 1851, and he generously chose not to patent it.

Wet collodion was a sticky transparent substance, ideal for the purpose of coating a glass plate with light-sensitive silver salts. It was not as reactive to light as the silver daguerreotype plate, nor as sharp in its depiction of details, but the glass could be used over and over again to produce new negatives, and it was far cheaper than silver. Even more importantly, a single negative could produce thousands of identical transparent photographs on suitably treated paper; each one of which could then be sold.

A Parisian daguerreotypist, Andre Ado1phe Disderi is credited with the “invention” of the photographic carte-de-visite in 1854, though the concept apparently derives from the aristocrat custom of dropping one’s visiting card on a
servant’s tray before being announced at the house of a friend. Like the earlier printed card, the small printed photograph could be distributed to family and friends, as autograph dedications on surviving examples demonstrate. Thus the social practice of “leaving one’s card” was given new impetus with the widespread introduction of the wet collodion process.
For a short period, the new photographic cartes-de-visite may well have been used in the same way as traditional
Visiting cards, though the representational potential of the format was far greater, and it was not long before it was very efficiently and extensively exploited. The faces of the famous and the interesting, people such as Queen Victoria, Napoleon III, or Garibaldi, could be sold in great numbers through shops and other retail outlets, and the collection of celebrities became a fashion. A traditional print could sell thousands of copies, some even more. Mayall sold sixty thousand portraits of Prince Albert in the week after the death of the prince consort. “Cartomania” had begun, and photography blossomed as a consequence. In London, for example, there were only six photographic studios producing daguerreotypes in 1845, while there were hundreds of studios by 1860, each one turning out thousands of cartes.

Using a specially constructed whole plate camera fitted with four lens tubes and a rotating back, a series of eight
identical portraits were registered on the glass plate while variant portraits of the same sitter could be made by
uncapping only some of the lenses for successive poses. Printing out was done on large sheets of contact paper from which the complete set of small photographs could then be cut. The speed and the simplicity of the new visual system made it economically very attractive.

However, the work of the photographer was just one element in the chain of production involved in making cartes.
The invention created an industry that employed an army of people. The earliest examples may be rough rectangles of cardboard holding a mounted photograph, but the situation changed rapidly. Specialist printers and designers began to manufacture custom-made cartes bearing the name and address of the photographer. Graphic artists then went to work to animate these rather bare commercial facts, adding allegorical figures and decorative details which often ennobled the cameras and photographs with artists’ palettes and the rays of the sun upon which the process depended on. Drawings on the rear of the carte sometimes give a tantalising glimpse of the interior or exterior of the photographer’s studio too.
Inside the studio, the photographer took the photograph, but the furniture and the scenography of the photographic set were designed by other hands. Specially made posing-chairs and posing-tables, together with headrests and backrests had already made their entrance into the studio in the daguerreotype era, but as more and more entrepreneurs and speculators flocked to photography, the market for these and other, more elaborate theatrical “props” expanded significantly. Indeed, later cartes tend to be “graced” by sometimes bizarre attempts to rusticate or ennoble the little studio of the photographer, changing fashions in contemporary interior decoration being faithfully mirrored.

At the same time, work of both a skilled and an unskilled nature was propagated. The photographer himself did everything that could be done to produce a passable photograph, but he was often obliged to seek assistance. In the very early days, photographic chemicals – collodion particularly – had to be freshly made and filtered daily. Glass had to be cut and cleaned, or scraped and washed if being prepared for re-use. The negative was printed out by direct contact with the light-sensitive paper, which had, in turn, to be fixed. As collodion was too dense to apply directly to the printing-out paper, its place as a medium for the natural salts was taken by albumen. Egg whites had, therefore, to be separated from the yolks, then whipped and strained to coat the paper before dipping in silver nitrate. Millions of eggs were used daily for this job. Afterwards, the flimsy paper had to be mounted by gluing it to a suitable cardboard base.
If the photograph was to be coloured, someone was needed who had the necessary skill to apply transparent colours over the picture, and advertisements for colouring and retouching are frequently found in the back of the carte. The finished item was then protected from dirt and accidental scuffing by insertion in a paper envelope or covering it with tissue though it is unusual to find these sensitive elements intact today.

By the 1870s, indeed, the business had grown to such an extent that the commercial production of collodion and the printing-out paper was inevitable. Factories were set to tip for their industrial production while the local chemist’s
shop thrived by its association with the photography trade. The printing-out paper (P.O.P., as it was called) could be brought in creams from the chemist, then cut to size as necessity required, even if the photographer had still to sensitise his paper daily before use by “floating” it in a solution of silver salts.

The charming original notion of the “visiting card” did not last long either. The little photographs were fragile and easily lost, and it was obviously more convenient to store them in a book or an “album” made for that particular purpose. Many companies specialised in the production of these delightful artefacts, which could only be made by semi-skilled craft methods because of the complexity of the composition of each page, which needed to contain a series of windows and slits inside which each collector could insert the cartes he was given, or which he chose to acquire. Family albums with their mixture of the famous and the trite are especially charming though nowadays it is rare to find an example that has not been tampered with.

Finally, a word about the significance of the photographic carte-de-visite. Many people collect them today as a valuable primary source of visual information about people and places in the nineteenth century. Although they are small and apparently insignificant, these photographs are, in certain cases, the only known pictures of the life of the subject. Many photographs used in newspapers and schoolbooks are reproductions of cartes, too, though the fact is rarely mentioned. Nor is the name of the humble photographer, though it is whole to his credit to have preserved a fraction of a past which seems, year after year, to recede exponentially in time from the visually saturated age in which we live.

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