By: Chistopher Sawula, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow
In early December, the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection launched Likenesses Within the Reach of All, a digital project centered on the cartes-de-visite within the archive’s extensive holdings. The project, initiated by former CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow Christa Vogelius and completed by her successor, Christopher Sawula, features over 3,330 photographs from the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Using maps, databases, and visualizations, Likenesses provides access to a unique and important part of southern photographic history.
Cartes-de-visite, or visiting cards, were invented in Europe in the mid-1850s and consisted of a small print mounted on card stock about the size of a baseball card. Less expensive than earlier forms of photography, photographers could easily produce multiple copies of a carte-de-visite, deliver them quickly to their customers, and in the process expand the capabilities of their businesses. Once printed, cartes-de-visite could be given out to friends and family as a momentos during visits, holidays, or social events. As photographers grew more adept at the techniques necessary to produce visiting cards and the cost of materials dropped, the format spread widely throughout the South and could be purchased by virtually all classes of people. The Williams Collection’s set of cartes-de-visite cover virtually the entire span of the format’s popularity and feature examples from the 1850s to 1900.
Likenesses Within the Reach of All allows researchers and the general public to explore the cartes-de-visite through a number of ways. The site’s central map shows the locations of the collection’s photographers, studios, and galleries across the United States. By clicking on these locations, researchers are given information about the photographs taken at these locations and can access the images directly through The University of Alabama’s digital archive explore, Acumen. Users can also zoom into specific cities like New Orleans, Baltimore, and Louisville to see where competing studios and galleries were located and how they fit into the commercial urban landscape. Finally, the central map can be filtered by specific photographers to show how individuals often needed to operate in several different cities and towns during their course of their career.
The project also includes several examples of data visualization that showcase some of the major trends present within the collection. Researchers can see the collection broken down by state, the most common photographers and studios, and the chronological rise and fall of cartes-de-visite as a format. These visualizations and accompanying essays explain both the advantages of cartes-de-visite as a body of research as well as their limitations. These maps and charts, as well as the site’s central map, grew out of the collection’s metadata, which can also be accessed directly on the site. By placing these photographs and accompanying data in the hands of researchers, Likenesses Within the Reach of All hopes to generate interest in the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection and showcase the digitization efforts underway in Special Collections and other divisions at The University of Alabama.