Cartes-de-visite & Cabinet cards

I have started collecting Cartes-de-visite and Cabinet cards and have added a sub-section in my blog specifically for these . These were initially bought to continue with my personal project Images & Text , I am now wondering if I could somehow incorporate elements of the project into my research for the final assignment . I chatted briefly with Russell about my thoughts on what I was planning for assignment 4/5 ; my particular interest is in using appropriated imagery but up until now have only used photographs from my own family collection. He suggested looking at ebay and junk shops for vernacular images at present as well as the CDV’S & CC’s I have additionally bought  a few individual photographs but am unsure how to proceed at the moment , I have an few ideas but need to do some more thinking and research before I begin my preparations.
Cartes-de-visite (CDV’s )
Patented by Frenchman André Adolphe-Eugène in 1854 CDV’s are small albumen prints mounted on card.  They remained in demand until the early 20th century and were ‘a truly global phenomenon’ (Batchen, G. p.p 81) . First seen in England in 1857 the publication of CDV’s of Queen Victoria and her family in 1860 started a craze for collecting not only the portraits of family and friends but those of royalty and famous celebrities. The small photo cards were kept in albums; the emergence of the family photo album.
The prints are approximately 3.5 x 2 inches whilst the mount is around  4 x 2.5
Generally dating from 1860–1905
Dating the CDV’s :
  1. Clothing–n.b styles can help corroborate that the photograph was not taken before a certain date but  not always an after date –men especially continued to wear outmoded fashions.
  2. Information on the back of the CDV : photographer / studio / etc but see Batchen notes #14
  3. The Mount :thinner mounts are usually found on earlier photo’s
  4. Shape of mount : by the 1870’s rounded corners became customary / earlier mounts have square corners.
Geoffrey Batchen’s short essay Dreams of an ordinary life. Cartes-de-visite and the bourgeois imagination is rather interesting.
  1. Typically CDV’S are considered by art historians ‘as being entirely without imagination’ (p.p 80) due to the unvaried pose , lighting and use of props by studios / photographers .
  2. Whilst Batchen acknowledges ‘that cartes were made in their homogenised millions by a multitude of hack photographers’ (p.p 80) they were also created by revered photographers of the time including amongst others Nadir , Julia Margaret Cameron , Hippolyte Bayard and Mathew Brady. But see notes below #14
  3. Importantly Batchen comments ‘could it be that the search for the imagination in the carte-de-visite must be directed elsewhere , away from the the usual focus on photographer and subject , and instead onto the mind’s eye of the viewer’ (p.p 80) .
  4. He proposes ‘ cartes-de-visites are disparaged , not because they are without artistic merit , but because they too obediently embody the the sensibilities , economic ambitions , and political self-understandings of the middle class’ (p.p 81)
  5. Batchen suggests that the practice of manufacturing CDV’S ’embodies capitalism’s inherent contradictions’ (21) therefore do the small images conceal the actuality of a subject’s way of life ? With imagination a different reading /understanding might be revealed.
  6. The success of CDV’s was guaranteed in ‘an era in which the representation of one’s self and family was regarded as a sign of financial and social success and of moral an intellectual character’ (p.p 82)
  7. A variety of backdrops and props enabled the sitter to chose ‘different versions of themselves ……as a consequence , the power of creation was transferred from the photographer , who was often no more than an operator behind a fixed camera , to the subject, who got to make all sorts of choices about how they wished to appear’ (p.p 82) .
  8. From a Marxist perspective ‘the carte-de-visite is a particularly distinctive commodity form because what is exchanged is pictures of people. The person being photographed is turned into a thing, a picture , and then this thing is sold , exchanged , and consumed ‘ (p.p 87)
  9. Despite the obvious and often elaborate sets ‘the realism of of photography does nothing to hide the inauthenticity of these scenes , in fact it reinforces and exploits it’ (p.p 87)
  10. Pose is replicated and repeated , mimicked by subjects who ‘adopt a look familiar to them , probably from viewing other cartes-de-visite . Familiar , but also new and not yet quite natural –hence the stiff and studied quality of the poses that result. These are portraits of people still learning how to look like themselves’ (p.p 88)
  11. The CDV’s were not only a portrait but an important symbol of social status
  12. Although the elaborate settings hide any indication of  economic change ‘cartes-de-visite represented a revolution in photographic practice (p.p 88) . In order to fulfil the growing demand for CDV’s ‘the owner of the studio had to break the act of photography into discrete tasks….By adopting mass production as its model , the carte-de-visite transformed photography from a craft to an industry’ (p.p 88)
  13. Art historians criticism of CDV’s because of their homogeneity) is the very quality ‘that marks the carte-de-visite’s radical modernity as a visual agent of capitalism’ (p.p 89)
  14. The development of studios run as industries had consequences for ‘authorship ….within the economy of the carte , the names of photographers had become trademarks rather than embodied presences , and these trademarks could be bought and sold like any other commodity’ (p.p 89) along with any photographs owned by the studio. Nadir’s name was used but ‘this didn’t necessarily mean that Nadir himself took the photograph or was even present in the studio that day‘ (p.p 89)
  15. Easily mass produced ‘any one image could potentially be printed in the thousands….even the most humble carte-de-visite was printed a number of times’ (p.p 90) .
  16. ‘The very genre declares the photograph to be a copy for which there is no original’ (p.p 90)
  17. The ease of producing endless copies enabled ‘the uncontrolled distribution of images that might otherwise have remained private. This in turn led to public scandal and contentious litigation over who”owned” an image, the photographer or its subject’ (p.p 91) .
  18. ‘An image independent of its manifestation as a physical photograph , had become a recognised commodity , a thing in itself’ (p.p 91)
  19. Appropriation of well liked images became widespread
  20. Photographs from varied origins ‘might all be brought together in one place , allowing strange conjunctions’ (p.p 91)
  21. As well as being purchased and traded the CDV’s were kept together in albums ‘to be shared and flaunted , perused and discussed at gatherings . Albums of cartes allowed one to recreate kinship structures in visual terms , and to form imaginary worlds that overcame time and space , class and gender. As image , an otherwise ordinary person could consort with royalty or with a notorious actress , or they could maintain an emotional connection with a loved one’ (p.p 91)
  22. ‘ Cartes were not just objects ; they were also excuses for flights of fancy and expressions of sentiment ‘ (p.p 92)
  23. Cartes were not intended to be displayed on walls and sized to be held in the hand ‘meant to be touched as well as seen’ (p.p 92)
  24. A moden day viewer understands ‘that these figures are posing for a camera , pretending to be somewhere they are not , standing next to a studio prop in front of a painted background……Photography’s realism is thereby openly declared to be an artifice…….the lack of imagination evidenced in the actual picture , is precisely what shifts the burden of imaginative thought from the artist to the viewer’ (p.p 94) .

A few of my recent purchases below :

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Back & front merged

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Cabinet Cards (CC)
CC’s , first introduced during the 1860’s , are larger than CDV’s but following the introduction of the photo postcard became less popular but continued to be manufactured up to the early 20th century . The photograph is mounted on cardboard and the photographic studio details are either printed or stamped on the front , the back of the CC frequently has an ornate design.
The prints are approximately 5.5 inches x 4 whilst the mount is 6.5 x 4.25 . The mount is generally thicker than that of CDV’s.
Generally dating from 1866–1910
Dating the CC’S:
  1. By the 1880’s the mounts were often bevelled at the edges and finished in gold or silver
  2. Colour of the mount : Cream was a popular choice but strong colours (black/brown/green/ burgundy) were introduced by the 1880’s .

My Pinterest board– Altered Cabinet Cards is below –scroll down to see them all. I think they are really innovative and something I am keen to attempt myself .

Bibliography / References
Batchen , G. “Dreams of an ordinary life. Cartes-de-visite and the bourgeois imagination”  ( 2009) In Long , J. Noble , A . Welch , E. (eds)  Photography Theoretical Snapshots: London : Routledge.
p.p 80-97

5 thoughts on “Cartes-de-visite & Cabinet cards

  1. Catherine

    Really interesting and the Pinterest board is very good. I daren’t buy any!!
    We still have CDVs now don’t we but to advertise/sell ourselves and our wares


    1. Judy Bach Post author

      I’m afraid I’ve become rather addicted to buying them ! Small packages keep arriving from Ebay every few days ! What I find so fascinating is that , rather like many images ( especially selfies ) shared via social media , they were used to portray an often idealistic version of themselves .


  2. Pingback: Exhibition : More Real than Life 19th Century portrait photography | Judy Bach : Digital Image & Culture

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