Hailed in the pages of the London Review in 1862, the carte de visite (CDV) was praised for providing consumers with an increasingly democratized access to portraiture in which “there is no barrier to rank […]; the poorest owns his three inches of card board, and the richest can claim no more […].”1
While the London Review described the photographic format as promising to cut an equalizing swath across classes, the end result was not the mass production of visually diverse portraits. Instead, as these portraits of twelve men and women clearly demonstrate (Fig. 1),2
CDVs often fell into a rote deployment of limited poses surrounded by a selection of standardized props, and thus ensured the circulation of a plenitude of visually similar images. As Elizabeth Anne McCauley extensively documents in her monograph on CDV portraiture and the career of its inventor, André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, the growing accessibility of this photographic format beyond the upper-class to all strata of middle-class consumers further contributed to the proliferation of repetitious imagery that became the hallmark of the CDV, as sitters sought to project an image of economic success and prestige through the use of furniture and mass-produced props and accessories.3
While it is tempting to decipher the responsible studios or uncover biographical details for each of the twelve portraits’ subjects, this information is not apparent or viewable today.4
The anonymity of each portrait is exacerbated by the detachment of these images from the context of a photographic album, which might have provided clues about the social networks in which they circulated. Rather than attempting to answer the question of whose likenesses these portraits depict, this essay instead looks to what scholar James Elkins has termed “the surrounds,”5
that is, the mass-produced furniture and props that fill these twelve CDV portraits. Specifically, I will examine the ways in which these objects, particularly posing furniture, shaped the body of a photographed subject into its “formulaic” appearance,6
which effaced any distinguishing biographical details in favor of social conformity, thus contributing to the depicted subjects’ eventual descent into anonymity. First, these portraits will be contextualized through a generalized discussion outlining the technical developments that surrounded the invention of the CDV and by tracing the route that they may have taken to arrive at Columbia University. This essay will then discuss these CDVs in terms of how the studio created a “socially performative” image of middle-class respectability through the use and reuse of props,7
demonstrating how these portraits were shaped more by the studio rather than by their subjects.
Ubiquitous in the 1860s, CDVs were inextricably linked to photography’s industrialized transformation into a format that lent itself to the mass production of images.8
In particular, two key developments in photographic technology, the collodion glass negative and albumen print paper, were essential components for the creation of the CDV, as well as to the widespread proliferation of photographs at an unprecedented scale. The collodion glass negative utilized a glass plate that was treated with collodion, an alcohol-based solution, before being sensitized with silver nitrate, which allowed for the reproduction of multiple positive images from the plate in contrast to earlier photographic processes such as the daguerreotype.9
Likewise, albumen-print paper, its surface coated with egg white and salt and sensitized with silver nitrates, resulted in sharper images through the direct contact of the paper with a negative and exposure to sunlight, while maintaining a low cost of production.10
These technological advances paved the way for Disdéri to develop the CDV. As the 1854 patent reveals, Disdéri created the CDV with the intention of making photography more commercially viable, explaining that the format was meant: “[…]to diminish greatly the costs of production, a result which I have obtained by my improvements.”11
These “improvements” took the form of a multi-lens camera, allowing eight images to be captured and printed from a single collodion glass negative that resulted in photographs that could be held in the hand while retaining clarity.12
The portability of this new format, as well as its ability to be printed and reprinted as several copies, allowed for photographs to be easily distributed between acquaintances, friends, and family members, giving rise to the creation of the patented photographic album in response to the rapid accumulation of images by consumers.13
Similarly, the voluminous production of CDVs, purchased as multiple copies, meant that these photographic images were disseminated and exchanged with a higher degree of social visibility than previous photographic formats, operating as a “public-facing” portrait of their sitter.14
It was likely because of this association with technological innovation that Charles Frederick Chandler, a Columbia College chemistry professor who was interested in the science of photography, acquired the twelve albumen-print CDVs as part of his efforts to develop a comprehensive study collection, which would later be renamed the Chandler Chemical Museum following his retirement from the University in 1910.15
Supplemented by Chandler’s involvement with the burgeoning chemical industries, where he served as a consultant, a public health official with New York’s Board of Health, and as a founding member of professional organizations such as the American Chemical Society,16
the collection was comprised of an array of industrially-produced chemical materials and related equipment.17
Photography was well-represented in the collection with the inclusion of cameras and photographic objects that showcased a diverse range of photographic processes, such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, collotypes, and several photomechanical prints demonstrating technological developments in color printing.18
More on photography at Columbia University can be found in Alison Braybrooks’ essay “A Fresh Look, The Class of 1860, Department of Chemistry Group Portrait,” which delves further into the history of Columbia’s Department of Chemistry and also provides a close examination of another photograph from Chandler’s collection.
While the Chandler collection was comprehensive enough that items were eventually loaned for museum exhibitions,19
Chandler’s photographs were not intended to be an art historical record of early photography or sentimental keepsakes, but rather they were utilized as pedagogical objects. This is further evidenced by accounts of Chandler’s lectures, which described his use of photographs as examples of photo-chemical processes’ capacity for precise reproduction.20
These lectures provide a probable context for why all twelve portraits have been closely mounted onto a board for purposes of display and underscore Chandler’s emphasis on the technical rather than the artistic possibilities of photography or the identities of the portraits’ subjects.21
Presenting the viewer with a kaleidoscopic arrangement of figures, the placement of photographs is reminiscent of the stacked bands of images that make up a single sheet of uncut CDVs (Fig. 2) and visually recalls the format’s reproductive capacity for printing multiple images from a single glass plate.22
The commercialized nexus in which these photographs were embedded was not limited to the mechanized photo-making process. Standardization pervaded every aspect of the photographer’s studio, resulting in the striking similarity of the images that these twelve portraits present. While the details in each differ, the general effect is that these CDVs originated from a single studio that recycled the same props and poses for each customer. Looking at these elements within their wider context reveals that these photographs could have been produced at any number of studios during the CDV’s height of popularity and underscores the degree to which a CDV portrait was actively shaped by the studio and the mass circulation of photographs, rather than by their subject.23
Given the CDV’s tendency to display the body in its entirety, one of its primary elements was the deployment of pose to evoke a sense of bodily restraint as part of a visual signification of middle-class identity.24
The studio’s process for constructing a “respectable” sitter took the material form of devices for posing and a number of props.25
Before an individual stepped foot into a studio, they could have consulted one of any innumerable number of guides for posing for a portrait. The circulation of photographic images meant that the poses were viewed and internalized by subjects, informing them “how” a body should look in a photograph.26
Entering the studio, the customer might have been provided with sample images that were meant to aid in their selection of a pose or would have seen photographs on the studio’s walls, a “specimen room” as one journal referred to it,27
thus ensuring that the same poses were reused. Successful portraits depended upon the sustained pose of the subject, which was carefully arranged by the photographer and held for the duration of the exposure.28
To maintain the subject’s pose, photographers relied on posing stands with their spiderlike armatures intended to render the photographed subject’s body immobile (Figs. 3, 4, 5),29
illustrating how much control was ceded to the studio. One account even describes a studio employing a rotating platform that was used to move the subject into more favorable lighting instead of breaking the sitter's immobile pose, which underscores the centrality of the posed body in producing a desirable portrait.30
These posing apparatuses eventually were displaced by the introduction of the more elegant solution of posing furniture, which was used in several of the twelve portraits and conveyed a sense of refined domesticity through the furniture’s bourgeois style, while still exerting control over the sitter’s body.31
Looking to Portrait of an Unknown Man (Fig. 6) as an example, the figure has been placed in a seated position with his left arm draped over the arm of a fringed chair that appears to wrap around him to reinforce his posture. This chair, when compared to contemporaneous advertisements (Figs. 7, 8), demonstrates the overwhelming volume of manufactured furniture hawked to studios in the backs of photographic journals.32
A sample of other CDVs containing similar chairs (Figs. 9, 10, 11) to the one found in Portrait of an Unknown Man further highlights this point. Notably, the chair featured in Portrait of an Unknown Man and the child’s chair from Portrait of an Unknown Woman and Child (Fig. 12) may be examples of patented adjustable furniture (Figs. 13, 14, 15) with components that could be altered to mold any type of body to conform with the standard range of acceptable poses, while framing the subject in the trappings of affluence.33
The reuse of the same furniture for each customer blurred, at least visually, the lines between the lower-middle-class and wealthier customers.
Similarly, studios also offered customers a selection of props such as necklaces, books, and other accessories that helped to project a certain class status with the intention that this depiction would circulate through their social networks.34
With this in mind, the accessories such as jewelry that form the details in each of these portraits could very well have been provided by the studio rather than belonging to the depicted subjects. In Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Fig. 16), the subject has been positioned in an upright pose with her left hand resting on a decorative table, holding what appears to be a metallic mirror that contrasts with the rich tone of her dress. The inclusion of props such as this mirror provided audiences with a codified image of femininity.35
Exemplifying this, the parasol in the right-hand side of Portrait of an Unknown Woman and the book held by the woman (Fig. 17) served a similar purpose in alerting a contemporaneous viewer to the subject’s fashionably cultured taste.36
The inconspicuous, waist-length locket worn by the sitter in Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Fig. 18) is another accessory that could easily be a personal memento or the studio’s costume jewelry.37
The end result was the production of a portrait that projected an image saturated with cultural signs of class that conformed to public expectations of middle-class life, rather than an intimate one. This effect was reinforced by the same selection of props and furniture being repeatedly offered to different customers. For more on accessories in portraiture, Colton Klein’s essay '"Magnetic Attraction': Materiality, Gender, and Technology in an American Daguerreotype Portrait" considers the similar role that accessories played in conveying cultured refinement in daguerreotypes.
Despite the London Review’s assertion that the innovative CDV would allow photographed subjects to “own” their portrait,38
the resulting images fell short of this promise of individualized representation. From the mass-manufactured furniture to the widespread proliferation of photographs, standardization, which made the format accessible to more consumers, resulted in staid portraits shaped more by the studio and visual tropes found in existing photographic portraits than by their subjects. Having acquired his CDVs from acquaintances or a studio’s available stock, Chandler removed these twelve portraits from the networks of exchange that made these images meaningful. Without this context and lacking the precious materiality attributed to its predecessors, such as the daguerreotype,39
these portraits with their repeated props easily lapsed in anonymity within Chandler’s collection, becoming scientific specimens that represented technological advances rather than social progress.
- 1“Photographs,” The London Review and Weekly Journal of Politics, Literature, Art, and Society, August 9, 1862.
- 2Provenance record for Twelve Portraits, “Portrait of an Unknown Woman,” Columbia University, accessed February 16, 2021, https://clio.columbia.edu/catalog/12110239.
- 3Elizabeth Anne McCauley, A.A.E. Disdéri and the Carte de Visite Photograph (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 2-3.
- 4Examination of these CDVs and their mount by the curator of Columbia University’s Art Properties, Roberto C. Ferrari, yielded no evidence of the customary studio imprints often found on the back of photographs or other information that would help identify what studio produced the images. Likewise, there are no visible annotations that would shed light on the photographs' subjects. A more in-depth discussion of studio imprints and the information that can be gleaned from them is found in William C. Darrah, Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography (Gettysburg, 1981), 16-19.
- 5James Elkins quoted by Kate Flint in “Surround, Background, and the Overlooked,” Victorian Studies 57, No. 3 (Spring 2015), 449.
- 6Robert A. Sobieszek, “Introduction: ‘Photography and the Expressive Face’,” in Ghost in the Shell: Photography and the Human Soul, 1850-2000 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1999), 19.
- 7Jennifer Elizabeth Anne Rudd, “Posing, Candor, and the Realisms of Photographic Portraiture, 1839-1945” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2014), 49.
- 8John Tagg, “A Democracy of the Image: Photographic Portraiture and Commodity Production,” in The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories(Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 48-49.
- 9“The Collodion – Photographic Process Series – Chapter 5 of 12,” The George Eastman Museum, last modified December 4, 2012, Accessed July 28, 2021, https://www.eastman.org/processvideos.
- 10“The Albumen Silver Print - Photographic Processes Series – Chapter 6 of 12,” The George Eastman Museum, last modified December 4, 2012, Accessed July 28, 2021, https://www.eastman.org/processvideos.
- 11A.A.E. Disdéri quoted by Elizabeth Anne McCauley in A.A.E. Disdéri, Introduction.
- 12Darrah, Cartes de Visite, 4.
- 13Darrah, Cartes de Visite, 8-9.
- 14Annie Rudd, “Victorians Living in Public: Cartes de Visite as 19th-Century Social Media,” Photography and Culture, 9:3 (November 2016), 198-199, 207.
- 15George B. Pegram, “Chandler and the Columbia School of Mines,” Science 62, No. 1614 (December 1925), 503.
- 16Marcus Benjamin, “Charles Frederick Chandler,” Scientific American LVII, No. 3 (July 1887), 39-40.
- 17Ralph H. McKee, C.E. Scott, and C.B.F Young, “The Chandler Chemical Museum at Columbia University,” Journal of Chemical Education 11, No. 5 (May 1934), 276.
- 18McKee, Scott, and Young, “The Chandler Chemical Museum,” 275, 277. McKee, Scott, and Young describe a wide range of photographic objects, equipment such as cameras, and print types in the collection. Curator Roberto Ferrari has provided me with additional insight into other items found in Chandler’s collection, which have been included here to illustrate the breadth of Chandler’s collecting efforts.
- 19For example, loans from the Chandler Chemical Museum to the Museum of Modern Art are listed in the catalogue for Photography, 1839-1937(New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1937), 101, 109, 123.
- 20John A. Tenant, ed., “Notes and Comments,” The Photo-Miniature 13, No. 155 (November 1916), 470.
- 21S.H. Horgan, “Mysteries in Processwork,” Inland Printer 58, No. 2 (November 1916), 238.
- 22Darrah, Cartes de Visite, 16.
- 23Colin Harding, “How to Spot a Carte de Visite (Late 1850s-c. 1910),” Science and Media Museum, last modified June 27, 2013, Accessed February 1, 2021, https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/find-out-when-a-photo-was-taken-identify-a-carte-de-visite/
- 24Andrea Volpe, “Cartes de Visite Portrait Photographs and the Culture of Class Formation,” in Burton J. Bledstein and Robert D. Johnston, eds., The Middling Sorts: Explorations in the History of the American Middle Class (New York: Routledge, 2001), 159-161.
- 25Volpe, “Cartes de Visite Portrait Photographs,” 166.
- 26Geoffrey Batchen, “Dreams of Ordinary Life: Cartes de Visite and the Bourgeois Imagination,” in J.J. Long, Andrea Noble, and Edward Welch, eds., Photography: Theoretical Snapshots (London: Routledge, 2008), 88.
- 27G. Wharton Simpson, ed., “Hints on the Management of a Photographic Business,” The Year-Book of Photography or the Photographic News Almanac for 1864 (1864), 93.
- 28Darrah, Cartes de Visite, 30-31.
- 29Volpe, “Cartes de Visite Portrait Photographs,” 161-163.
- 30F.C. Beach, ed., “Artificial Light for Photographic Purposes,” The American Amateur Photographer VIII, No. 3 (March 1896), 136.
- 31Andrea L. Volpe, “Cheap Pictures: Cartes de Visite Portrait Photographs and Visual Culture in the United States, 1860-1877” (PhD diss., Rutgers, 1999), 129-130.
- 32A study of any number of popular journals aimed at photographers, such as Humphrey’s Journal for Photography, reveals that they are littered with these advertisements.
- 33I am indebted to Andrea Volpe’s mention of patent posing devices in her dissertation, which led to my exploration of the individual patent files for posing furniture. Volpe, “Cheap Pictures,” 100, 129-131.
- 34Darrah, Cartes de Visite, 137-138, and Rudd, “Pose, Candor, and the Realisms,” 71-72.
- 35Volpe, “Cartes de Visite Portrait Photographs,” 166.
- 36Joan L. Sera, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1995), 199.
- 37Geoffrey Batchen, “Vernacular Photographies,” History of Photography 24, 3 (January 2015), 265.
- 39Batchen, “Vernacular Photographies,” 263.