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André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819 -1899)

André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819 -1899)

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.

A plate with eight portraits of Princess Lizaveta Trubetzkaya with different fashion accessories, 1858

A plate with eight portraits of Princess Lizaveta Trubetzkaya posing with different fashion accessories, 1858

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 emperor became a loyal customer along with his son, wife, and numerous mistresses

The emperor became a  loyal customer along with his son, wife, and numerous mistresses

Queen Victoria, too, sat for several portraits

Queen Victoria, too, posed for several portraits

So did Cora Pearl, the most rapacious of all leading courtesans

So did Cora Pearl, one of the most rapacious of all leading courtesans

Monsieur Léotard with his trapeze, checking his plimsole, c.1865

Performers considered the visit card an essential self-promoting tool. Here is Monsieur Léotard with his trapeze c.1865

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.

Was it Disdéri;s assistant or the Master himself who spent considerable time creating this photomontage of ballerina's legs?

Was it Disdéri’s assistant or the Master himself who spent considerable time creating this photo montage of ballerinas’ legs? It was, no doubt, a bestseller. A woman’s ankle was rarely seen, let alone a knee!

Emilie Ellis showing almost all. As you have noticed on the previous photos, fashionable ballerina's legs were eather on the heavy side. Thin wasn't in

Emilie Ellis showing almost all. Fashionable legs were rather on the heavy side. Thin wasn’t in

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.

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