The fascinating history of carte de visite photography

Before the days of selfies and Instagram, these miniature portraits were a way for people to socialise through imagery

Sepia toned photo of a person with a moustache and wearing a suit and tie, apparently in tears clutching their jaw in pain

In 1854, French photographer André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri patented the carte de visite, which was a small photographic image mounted on a thick piece of paper. Designed as a method for portraiture, it wasn’t until 1854, when Disdéri used his invention to publish photos of Napoleon III, that its popularity began to grow.

Fascinated by the medium, members of the aristocracy all around the world soon wanted their own portraits captured for cartes de visite, and they began flocking to photography parlours where trained practitioners were busy making money from this new phenomenon.

Sepia toned photo of a cat wearing glasses appaering to read a book
The Connoisseur

“It would be difficult to exaggerate the popularity of the carte de visite when it was first introduced at the beginning of the 1860s,” says Paul Frecker in his new book, Cartomania. “The format enjoyed a mass appeal of such epidemic proportions that for a while at least it eclipsed all other forms of photographic production. Innumerable articles in the photographic press soon trumpeted its ascendancy and the craze for collecting these miniature portraits was eventually dubbed ‘Cartomania’ by cultural commentators.”

Indeed, these conveniently sized photographs became a kind of early form of social media, with subjects eager to distribute copies of their portraits among friends and family members, and to collect portraits of others to add to their own collections.

Sepia toned photo of actress Maud Branscombe wearing a white fabric headdress
Maud Branscombe

Initially a pasttime of the wealthy upper class, the carte de visite was eventually embraced by the rest of society. Even the working class – though unable to afford having their own photos taken – eagerly perused shop windows in which collections of these cards were displayed. The author even credits the carte de visite with the rise of “a celebrity industry that endures to this day”.

In Cartomania, Frecker charts the “rise, dominance and eventual decline” of the phenomenon, providing readers with a comprehensive overview of the photographic medium during this era, as well as the way in which it was transformed by the carte de visite.

Sepia toned photograph of an explorer wearing specialist clothing holding a flag
Captain Paul Boyton

He writes: “The format was offered at studios the length and breadth of the country. Indeed, commercial portraiture commissioned by paying members of the public was the main source of income for most professional photographers.

“Although many of them never managed to produce work that rose above the dull and pedestrian, some of these men and women occasionally produced Lilliputian masterpieces, while a few photographers became masters of their art, combining a head for business with a fine aesthetic sensibility.”

Sepia toned photo of a person with long hair and wearing a loose wrap with a child on their back
Mrs Thomas Heywood and her daughter Mabel

Of course, no book on the carte de visite would be complete without a well-curated selection of these photographs, and Frecker has certainly chosen some brilliant examples.

From portraits of historical figures such as Queen Victoria (known for her love of these cards) and the photographer Nadar (who helped to popularise the method), to images in which the tone, composition and colour departs from the traditional black and white style of portraiture that was common during this time. There are even examples of cartes de visite that have been transformed into other media, including illustrations and engravings, hinting at the creative freedom the phenomenon inspired.

Sepia toned photo of a gymnast balanced on a large ball
Signor Ethardo

Commenting on the profound impact of the carte de visite on British society, Frecker writes, “It is hard to envisage at this remove in time the sheer excitement that the format generated among the general public during its heyday, not just among the wealthy and the privileged but throughout British society.

From the woman who sat on the throne – one of the most zealous adherents of the cult of the carte – to the lowest of her subjects, who could only experience the craze with their noses pressed against shop windows. From high to low, the format captured the imagination of a wildly enthusiastic audience.”

Sepia toned photo of a person with long hair wearing a head piece with feathers protruding from it
Mrs Rousby as Joan of Arc

Cartomania by Paul Frecker is published by September Publishing;