Lisa Robinson's weekly History of Photography Column
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History of Photography: The Carte-de-Visite

In 1854, a photographer by the name of André Disdéri patented a new take on the collodion process called the Carte-de-Visite (or Carte, for short). Though they could be a singular image, Cartes were often multiple exposures taken onto a single sheet of paper, creating almost a collage effect. A multi-lens camera had tubular lenses (i.e. no shutter) so the different focal lengths could be covered and uncovered for exposures (allowing different poses) but all the exposures fell onto the same wet plate. The images could be cut apart for individual Cartes or left together like a collage. The entire photograph was around 2.25 x 3.5 inches and mounted onto a paper cardstock of around 2.5 x. 4 inches, so the multiple lenses produced tiny images on the paper.

An uncut Carte-de-Visite.

Many photographers of the time pooh-poohed the Carte. They didn’t think it was worthwhile and the images were so tiny, they didn’t reveal much. However, thanks to Napoleon III, the Carte got a bit of a boost. In 1859, Napoleon III commissioned Disdéri to make a publicity Carte-de-Visite. Able to be replicated easily thanks to the collodion process, Napoleon’s carte was distributed widely and became incredibly popular with people.

Disdéri’s Carte-de-Visite of Napoleon III.

A few years later, in England, an American photographer by the name of  John Jabez Edwin Mayhall had published a book called the Royal Album which contained various Cartes of the Royal Family. It was a hit in England and soon the public was demanding more and more Cartes of their own.

John Mayhall’s Death of Prince Albert Carte-de-Visite from his book Royal Album

The Carte turned into an early form of greeting cards, essentially. In fact, they’re not unlike the photo greeting cards we still like to send today. People would have their Carte made while they stood with elaborate props or costumes, sometimes revealing their aspirations or hints about their careers. They would order multiple copies and send copies around to their families and friends. In turn, these families and friends would display the Cartes in their homes, thus contributing more and more to the idea of gathering photo albums of loved ones.

Also, Cartes became popular among all types of people, reinforcing photography as a great equalizer among the classes. Whether you were rich or poor, your Carte would look an awful lot like any one else’s Carte and everyone was a part of the same trend. As more and more people exchanged Cartes, people also started writing on the fronts and backs of them, telling stories about the images the Carte contained, in essence like a postcard.

Carte-de-Visites lasted around 10 years until around 1866 when photographers began looking to push the boundaries and create something new. Stay tuned for what happened next in the next History of Photography column!

Click to read more columns about The History of Photography.

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