CARTE-DE-VISITE photography

Cartes-de-visite were small visiting card portraits (usually measuring 4 1/2 x 2 1/2") were introduced by a Parisian photographer, Andre Disdéri, who in late 1854 patented a way of taking a number of photographs on one plate (usually eight), thus greatly reducing production costs. (He was not actually the first to produce them; this honour belongs to an otherwise obscure photographer called Dodero, from Marseilles).

Different types of cameras were devised. Some had a mechanism which rotated the photographic plate, others had multiple lenses which could be uncovered singly or all together.

The carte-de-visite did not catch on until one day in May 1859 Napoleon III, on his way to Italy with his army, halted his troops and went into Disdéri's studio in Paris, to have his photograph taken. From this welcome publicity Disdéri's fame began, and two years later he was said to be earning nearly £50,000 a year from one studio alone.

In England carte-de-visite portraits were taken of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. One firm paid a small fortune for exclusive rights to photograph the Royal Family, and this signalled the way for a boom in collecting pictures of the famous, or having one's own carte-de-visite made. It is said that the portraits of Queen Victoria and the Royal Family taken by John Mayall sold over one hundred thousand copies.

Other public figures were often persuaded to sit. Helmut Gernsheim, a writer on the history of photography, comments that they were called "sure cards" because one could be sure that each time a famous person consented to sit, a small fortune would go to the photographer! To print quickly, several negatives were taken at a sitting: the Photographic News for 24 September 1858 reported that no fewer than four dozen negatives were taken of Lord Olverston at one sitting!

During the 1860s the craze for these cards became immense. An article in the Photographic Journal, reports:

"The public are little aware of the sale of the cartes de visite of celebrated persons. As might be expected, the chief demand is for members of the Royal Fanily.... No greater tribute to the memory of His late Royal Highness the Prince Consort would have been paid than the fact that within one week of his decease no less than 70,000 of his cartes de visite were ordered...

Our great thoroughfares are filled with photographers; there are not less than thirty-five in Regent Street alone."

Sometimes the profits could be huge. A Frenchman by the name of Oliver Sarony, who was based in Yorkshire, was said to be earning more then ten thousand pounds a year - a fortune last century. Little wonder that there was speculation that Gladstone might introduce a tax on the trade!

The reasons for the success of these cards were their cheapness. The average price for a card was a shilling (5p); mass produced ones could be bought for 25p a dozen. They were small and easy to collect, and many people began to place these in photographic albums collections of pictures, particularly of royalty, became highly treasured (there was no television, of course, in those days!)
Cartes-de-visite were Albumen prints, and it is on record that in Britain half a million eggs were being delivered yearly to one photographic studio alone!

The props used in cartes-de-visite seemed to follow certain fashions; starting off with balustrades and curtains, they moved to columns (sometimes resting on the carpet!) bridges and stiles, hammocks, palm-trees and bicycles. Sadly, quantity rather than quality was the order of the day, though there are some striking exceptions.

To some extent the carte-de-visite craze also put paid to photography in which detail was a distinctive feature; the work of Gustave Le Gray and of the Bisson brothers, for example, could not be reproduced on these small cards, and thus their businesses began to fall off.

By 1860 the carte de visite craze had reached its climax. In his autobiography H. P. Robinson states that in 1859 his photographic business had been about to collapse, but that this innovation had saved it. By the end of 1860 he had not only paid off old debts and made additions to his premises, but had invested a considerable sum of money, two years later being able to sell his business and retire to live in London.

In May 1862, Marion & Co. announced that it had published a series of Cabinet views, 6.75 x 4.5 inches, photographed by George Washington Wilson, and the larger Cabinet photographs remained in vogue until the postcard was introduced at the turn of the century. Stereoscopic cards, whose popularity had temporarily declined, also began to experience a revival.

There are many examples of these photographs in the Royal Photographic Society's collection. Some on current display are accompanied by an advertisement by the London Stereoscopic Society, for twenty prints at one pound, "Detention 3 minutes."

© Robert Leggat, 1999.