Recently, we digitized a large collection of cartes de visite, a mid 19th century photography phenomenon that featured albumen prints mounted on heavy paper or cardstock.
Here are some examples — click on each image to see it up close, complete with the photography studio labeled on the front:
Each carte de visite (CDV) was about the size of a calling card, making it easy to carry around and exchange this new technology with others.
But these cards feature more than just photographs. The back of the card provided the photography studio with an opportunity to advertise its business. While some studios simply included a name and address, or perhaps the processes they offered or their pricing structure, some used decorative monograms or icons to draw potential customers’ attention.
Some studios, though, used more elaborate illustrations. A common one was the artist’s palette, perhaps indicating the attitude these studios took toward their craft:
This one includes both a palette and an equally common icon: the camera itself.
Here’s another that features a camera, this one in the act of taking a photograph:
You’ll see a camera in the second image below, this one being wielded by a cherub, a surprisingly common motif on our CDV backs.
More exotic figures sometimes appeared on card backs, like the lion and sphinx below:
The second card above is a good example of illustrations used as a decorative border for a largely text-based presentation. Here are some others:
Some photographers included images of their actual studio space on CDV backs, like these:
But some card back illustrations are even more complex. This one is quite elaborate but a sort of perplexing choice for advertising art:
To find more cartes de visite — to see photos of everyday folks from the 19th century and get a sense of the self-conceptions and business practices of photographers — check out the Southern Cartes de Visite Collection in Acumen.