Photographic portraiture in the mid 19th century was a slow and expensive process until a clever man invented the carte de visite format. The inventor, André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, juxtaposed multiple shots on the same negative, forming a mosaic comparable to that of the photo booth camera. The process, patented in 1854, reduced the cost of production of each photograph and made this kind of portraiture more popular. The visit card took its final shape when each image was pasted on a slightly larger rigid cardboard bearing the name and address of the photographer.
At first, the portrait card was limited to the narrow circle of the aristocracy and the business in the studio was slow. Then, in 1858, the emperor Napoleon III dropped in on his way to a military campaign in Italy. His portrait was immediately sold by the hundreds throughout Paris. The celebrities, who instantly understood the value of the process, wanted in turn to see their image immortalized in the form of a portrait-card and displayed behind the windows of the souvenir shops on the main boulevards. Political leaders, men of letters, stars of the theater and opera, clowns and acrobats, dancers and women of the demimonde, all joined in. The phenomenon, far from being confined to the capital, quickly won major provincial cities. It spread throughout France, Europe, and later the United States. The images of Queen Victoria, President Lincoln, or Sarah Bernhardt were sold by hundreds of thousands. Following the lead, the bourgeois, too, got on board. Smaller studios opened their doors to produce family portraits.
The evolution of photography brought social changes. The living room now contained a heavy album with portraits of family members, to which were added others containing collections of now immediately identifiable celebrities, of art, curiosities, and faraway places. Hidden in secret drawers were new gentlemen’s treasures: the first pornographic photographs.
Disdéri’s carte de visite offered a direct view of society, of its rulers, artists, and other personalities of the Second Empire. It helped to forge new connections between people and enriched the social and cultural knowledge.
To visit a 19th century photography studio, click on the image below. It will take you to the Camera Museum.