Carte de Visite
A photographic format for small albumen prints, the carte de visite – French for “visiting card” – is typically associated with portraiture and consists of a 9 x 6 cm photographic print mounted on a slightly larger card of greater thickness. Introduced in the market in 1854, the carte de visite (or CdV) was very popular and widely distributed in Britain, France and their colonies due to its relative ease of production, small size and affordability. Its popularity peaked between the 1860s and 80s, especially among the rising middle classes who sought CdV portraits to express their social status and social connections as well as to use them as calling cards. In India, this format found patronage among the landed and mercantile classes, businessmen and the elite ranks of British officers, being produced by several notable photographers and studios, such as John Saché (Saché and Westfield), Samuel Bourne (Bourne & Shepherd), Johnston and Hoffman, Hurrychund Chintamon, Darogah Abbas Ali and Lala Deen Dayal.
The innovation was patented by French photographer André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854, although the general idea of a card-sized photograph has been independently attributed to many individuals before and after the patent. Disdéri’s patent initially described the process of exposing ten small images on one wet collodion plate, instead of a single picture. In addition to producing more exposures, this allowed the sitter to assume a variety of poses and for different props to be used in a single sitting.
Disdéri’s cartes de visite portraits of monarchs and celebrities, which when sold as collectibles to the general public in the 1850s, widened their appeal and made portraiture more accessible to the middle classes. Aspiring to the symbolic status and aesthetic of aristocratic portraiture, they then began to commission portraits for family albums and for use in keepsakes such as pendants and pocket watches.
When introduced in India by commercial photographers in the 1860s, the CdV was received with enthusiasm by the Indian elite. In the cosmopolitan and commercial hub of colonial Bombay (now Mumbai), CdVs were popularised largely by photographer Hurrychund Chintamon, among the earliest Indian photographers to have specialised in it. Here his patrons were mostly the local mercantile and business families — among whom were the Parsis, who not only enthusiastically received but also began producing these prints — as well as royalty, especially the Maharaja of Baroda, Malhar Rao. Further east in Lucknow, the landed gentry were featured in the form of 260 CdV portraits in photographer Darogah Abbas Ali’s An Illustrated Historical Album of the Rajas and Taaluqdars of Oudh (1880), which by dint of being printed in English and Urdu, catered equally to the local and the British elite.
The British administrators found additional use for this format in their criminal and population management operations: similar sized photographs of prisoners could be taken en masse and moved swiftly between offices of the various police commissioners and superintendents to facilitate quick responses across the subcontinent in the event of prison breaks or large-scale searches. Such photographs were made by both official photographers of the British government and independent commercial studios such as Bourne & Shepherd and Raja Deen Dayal & Sons.
By the late nineteenth century, cartes de visite began to go out of fashion, mainly due to the introduction of larger cabinet card prints in 1866, which were favoured for their clarity and detail, as well as the space available on the reverse side for personal messages and studio branding.
Burstow, Stephen. “The Carte De Visite and Domestic Digital Photography.” Photographies 9, no.3 (2016): 287–305.
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Menon, Avehi.2021.”Think Small: Carte De Visites, Cabinet Cards & Travelling Portraits.” Sarmaya. 02 February 2021. https://sarmaya.in/spotlight/think-small-carte-de-visites-cabinet-cards-travelling-portraits/.
Perry, Lara. “The Carte De Visite in the 1860s and the Serial Dynamic of Photographic Likeness.” Art History 35, no. 4 (2012): 728-49.
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