We explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image, and its impact on our lives.
To help you date your old family photographs, so far I’ve shown you how to spot daguerreotypes, collodion positives and ferrotypes. Today we turn to the distinguishing features of the carte de visite – a 19th century collecting craze.
A carte de visite is a photograph mounted on a piece of card the size of a formal visiting card – hence the name. The format was patented by the French photographer Andre Adolphe Eugene Disdéri (1819 – 1889) in 1854.
Most professional portrait photographers of the 1850s took either daguerreotypes or collodion positives. With both processes, each picture was unique and multiple copies could only be made with difficulty – if at all.
People wanting larger portraits or more than one copy could have whole plate prints made from wet collodion negatives, but there was little demand for these except in the most fashionable studios because they were expensive (£2-4 depending on the size and whether it was hand coloured or not).
Realising that there was a market for a process which could produce a large number of prints very cheaply, Disdéri devised a way of reducing costs by taking several portraits on one photographic plate.
This required the use of a special camera and many different types were developed.
Some had several lenses, which could be uncovered either individually, or all at the same time to give 4 or 8 photographs on the same plate. Others had a mechanism for moving the photographic plate so that each image was recorded on a different area.
Cartes de visite was introduced to England in 1857. In May 1860, J. E. Mayall took carte portraits of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children. These were published later that year and the popularity of carte portraits soared.
People began to collect portraits of their family, friends and celebrities and mounting them in photograph albums. Celebrity cartes were sold at stationer’s shops in the same way that picture postcards are today.
The craze for collecting celebrity cartes de visite in albums reached its peak during the 1860s but the format remained popular until the beginning of the 20th century, and cartes can still be found in large numbers, loose or in family albums.
Because they were popular for so long, it can sometimes be difficult to date cartes de visite.
The subject’s clothing and the photographer’s name and address, often printed on the back, can be very helpful, but changes in the cardboard mount can also assist with dating.
Cartes were small paper prints – about 3.5 x 2 inches pasted onto standard sized cardboard mounts – about 4 x 2.5 inches. This size remained unchanged throughout the carte’s history.
If you have several examples of cartes you can compare, the relative thickness of the cardboard mount can indicate a rough date. Generally, the thinner the mount, the earlier the photograph.
The shape of the cardboard mount can also help with dating. Early cartes produced in the 1860s usually have square corners. In the 1870s, mounts with rounded corners were introduced.