Lisa Robinson's weekly History of Photography Column
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History of Photography: The Cabinet Photo

The carte-de-visite reigned supreme in the public’s taste until around 1866. Cartes were great, but rather tiny. Soon, demand for a larger format became more loud. People also wanted more detail in their photos (which a larger format would provide). In 1862, Marion & Co.  first introduced the cabinet card. Sized at 6.75 x 4.25 inches, it met the growing demands of the public. As more and more studios adopted the new format, popularity soared.

A cabinet card of a woman and her dog in the late 1890’s.

The exact origin of the name “cabinet” is somewhat unclear, but it might be a reference all the way back to the  15 & 16th centuries. The bourgeois class used to purchase Augsburg cabinets to hold and display their collectibles. Also, sometimes small paintings used to be held or framed within small cabinets by the Dutch and Flemish artists.

Cabinet photos were made very similarly to the carte-de-visite. They too, were a wet plate process. A layer of albumen (egg white) followed by a layer of collodion was painted on the plate before being dipped in a nitrate bath for photo sensitizing. Th exposures were made while the plate was still wet and afterward, immediately put into the development solution. The plate of the negative began to be varnished to help deter any scratches from damaging the images. The negatives were then printed on the pre sized stock papers (which were also dipped in albumen and sensitizing solution). Sometimes the prints were toned using a solution of gold chloride which gave them that brown/sepia look before the image was “fixed” or stabilized in hypo.

Eventually, the cabinet photo came in three sizes: No. 1 5.25 x 4, No. 2 5.75×4, and Special 6 x 4.25. All the cabinets were mounted on 6.5 x 4.25 card stock. An interesting byproduct of the increased size and detail of the photo was that the public and the photographers began being more critical of how the photo was framed and how the object looked in the photo. Photographers began pushing themselves to find better ways to express the subject’s likeliness and personality, thus creating even more of an emotional attachment to imagery. The increased size of the cabinet also lead to more photographer experimentation with collage (cutting out multiple different photos and pasting them together in a new cabinet).

Cabinet photos continued to be popular up until the time around WWI. The invention and marketing of folding cameras to the public meant that the average person could now take and make their own photos instead of going to studio for a cabinet portrait.

Click to read more columns about The History of Photography.

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