One could call it the Instagram of the 19th century. There were influencers, throwing their weight around. There were intriguing, elaborately posed images. There were carefully curated albums to present edited lives. The Carte de Visite or CdV was the hottest trend of the mid-19th century, and people were hooked.
Cartes de Visite are small albumen prints, largely portrait images of individuals and sometimes of groups, mounted on a card that’s 2 ½ inches wide by 4 inches high. A bit larger than a contemporary passport photograph, the CdV was a collectible, a medium of advertising. The calling card, a device used by middle- and upper-class society when paying social calls, was reimagined as the Carte de Visite with the added glamour of the caller’s portrait.
Invented and patented by French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in the 1850s, the CdV enjoyed robust popularity fuelled by the massive strides made in the evolution of camera technology and photographic techniques. Using a four-lens camera, Disdéri invented a method of taking eight images simultaneously on a single negative plate. The large print made from that plate could be cut up into smaller images to make cards. This allowed for replicability with only minor variations in pose. Disderi had struck gold by identifying the gap and need in the market for prints that could be produced quickly and at a low cost. This was a pivotal moment for the photography business with the immense potential to cater to multiple audiences across socio-economic classes. CdVs created a stir in Europe, and soon travelled to its colonies and on to America.
Though the low cost of CdVs’ production democratised photography, a large number of the initial portraits made and circulated were of royalty and upper-class elites. With so many popular figures sitting for portraits, it turned into a collectible and the craze of collecting CdVs was so widespread, it was termed ‘Cartomania’ or ‘Cardomania’. Like the baseball- or wrestling-themed trading cards of the ’90s.
In Britain, the most popular CdVs were portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, as well as other members of the royal family. For instance, this portrait of the Queen of Prussia, Marie Louise Augusta Katharina (1776-1810) would have been a popular collectible; she was mother-in-law to Princess Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. She was a formidable, patriotic queen who was regarded as a symbol of virtue, piety and national unity.
In France, it was the portraits of the well-known intellectuals of the time like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas that were popular, and in India it was portraits of royalty like Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow, Nizam Mir Mehboob Ali Khan of Hyderabad, Shivaji Rao Holkar and the inimitable Kaikhusrau Jahan, Sultan of Bhopal. Interestingly, the tastes of card-collectors eventually expanded to include renowned singers, dancers and gurus of the time.
CdVs come to India
Photography arrived in India in the 1840s, and the excitement to understand and work the camera led to the establishment of Photographic Societies in important centres like Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. Clergymen, clerks and accountants turned photographers, documenting people, railways, archaeological surveys – subjects and achievements of the colonial rulers. There were other smaller catalysts that catapulted the rise and adoption of photography in India as well. For one, Indian royals were among the first to enthusiastically adopt this form of visual representation in their own courts. Curious about this marvellous invention and also cognizant of its appeal, many such as Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur and the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Mehboob Ali Khan, became connoisseurs of the form. The Nizam hired well-known Indian photographer Raja Deen Dayal as his official court photographer to take portraits, group pictures and candid photographs.
As writer and curator Malavika Karlekar says, “The appearance of the camera and of photography brought an entire subculture associated with visuality and its presentation.” The early portraits of royalty were mostly of men, posing in all their splendour: elaborate clothing, jewellery and pinned medallions, standing against rich fabric, furniture and decorative architecture. This is significant in its messaging. It was important for ruling royal families to affirm their social and political power and their equal footing with the British. The adoption of photography provided the proper, unobtrusive stage for these power dynamics to play out.
As their power gradually ceded to the British rulers, many Indian royals wanted to emulate these Western ideals and lifestyles, and took to displaying symbols of this loyalty in their portraits. From posing with medallions like the Star of India displayed prominently to wearing suits complete with books stacked and propped up on side tables. The imagery of loyalty, exposure and erudition, CdVs were statements that travelled, visual mementos handed out to visiting dignitaries and their own subjects.
The performative space of the photography studio
Looking closely at CdV and Cabinet Card images, a lot can be gleaned about photography studio spaces and the power of the pose. By the 1860s, photo studios were set up in all the major cities in India under British control. Run by both Europeans and Indians, they set the stage for the performative portraiture and its mass reproduction. Soon it was wealthy Indians and a growing middle class that were entering studios, many for the first time, to get their portraits taken. For many who couldn’t afford painted portraits earlier, CdVs offered an exciting opportunity to own an object for posterity.
The studio space was where the negotiation between photographer and subject played out. The racial inequity and segregation taking place in the streets outside between colonial ruler and native subject may not have necessarily found its way into the studio, where often there was a European technician taking a portrait of an Indian couple supervised by the Indian studio owner. In the studio space, the sitter was sometimes merely an actor in the elaborate role and set-up improvised and imagined by the photographer. Given the technological invention to take images in multiples of four with variation in poses, the subject and photographer could get into lengthy discussions and deliberations on the kind of image they wanted. Props like chairs, books and statues were used and placed with intent as part of the pose. Studio backgrounds included replicas of colonial balustrades, and other indicators of modernity such as books and statues.
Like the gentleman in the Cabinet Card below—titled most straightforwardly, Rich Man No Name—who is leaning against an emblemed stand on which is placed a sculpture of a Greek or Roman soldier on a horse, possibly alluding to the sitter’s knowledge and exposure to Western history and myth. Subtle messaging proclaiming the sitter as a man of the world.
Additionally, there was a struggle to arrive at a pose that best represented an authentic self. In Victorian England, against the backdrop of growing mechanisation and industrialisation, there was an attempt made to look inward, to present the personal, authentic self. This was done by posing in what appears to be an interior space indulging in domestic activities such as embroidery or reading, lending a heightened aura of intimacy.
In 1866, the introduction of the Cabinet Card displaced the Carte de Visite. A larger version of the CdV at 6.5 inches by 4.25 inches, the Cabinet Card was similar in design and material but additionally served the purpose of providing a free, blank, publicity space on the reverse. The backs of the Cabinet Cards was used by photographers to advertise their studio offerings, enticing the sitter with competitive deals and tall claims. Including this advertisement by P Gomes & Co, a studio in Kalbadevi, Mumbai ensuring successful portraits for all those unhappy with previous studio attempts. The language and kind of competitive jargon and endorsements displayed is an indication of the commercial rise and popularity of photography studios at the time.
Ephemeral commodities capturing everyday histories
Cartes de Visite were described in the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography published in 2008 as “Small, ephemeral commodities which were widely available, easy to hold, easy to pass around, easy to look over by the dozen within the drawing room, cartes produced little distinction in themselves. They were literally ‘touchy-feely’ artefacts; not to be looked at with deferential awe or revered from a distance but catalogued and collected, gossiped and commented upon.”
The allure of Cartes de Visite lies precisely in them being “touchy- feely”, commonplace objects. As taking portraits became more and more economically viable, these cards captured people across social strata and have come to serve as ephemeral, visual histories of a people and time. While countless common people photographed remain unidentified, one can interpret to a certain extent, based on their clothing, styles and props used, their class and access. Photography became the medium through which an emerging middle class represented itself across urban centres. Apart from royalty, merchants and aspiring scholars, who else was being photographed? In an album that is part of the Sarmaya collection, we find a photograph of Malka Jan Agrawali, of Agra and Calcutta, posing solemnly against a prop. She was a courtesan, singer and musician in the court of Wajid Ali Shah in Calcutta. A powerful singer, she went on to record concerts on gramophone discs, reaching wider audiences. To study these portraits is to trace the legacies of India’s performing artists, which were otherwise whitewashed or pushed to the margins.
We also find another image, simply labelled by hand: Bindadin, kathak dancer, Lucknow. Maharaj Bindadin was one of the most well-known singers and kathak exponents, attributed with the evolution of the Lucknow Gharana. The gharana is named after Bindadin and his brother as the Kalka-Bindadin gharana of Kathak. Maharaj Bindadin’s legacy is carried on by the renowned dancer, Pandit Birju Maharaj.
For the public, to be viewed in private
The practice of collecting CdVs and Cabinet Cards led to the introduction of the photographic album in the 1850s, which became the private space within which to view the images. CdVs and the larger Cabinet prints were often exchanged with family members, slipped in with notes and letters. Albums were highly decorative with floral motifs, some of them edged with gold, and became objects of nostalgia, knowledge and aspiration with images that were of familiar and dear family members and those of celebrities as collectibles. Often it was the women of the household who would collect and catalogue the order of the cards in the albums. They were the early homegrown family archivists, keepers of memorabilia and memory.
The colonial encounter and context is often the looming backdrop to image making and collecting. In one of the albums, among images of royalty are also ethnographic portraits, such as the one of a woman with a broom, labelled in Hindi as safaikarmi, documented for an unacquainted audience. The other is an image of a young black man posing awkwardly against a fake garden scene. Portraits such as these sit alongside others of men in uniform, merchants, women of the household or dancers and performers. This is a lens into the kind of visual collection and curation an album might have contained as unidentified ethnographic portraits become collectibles.
Prisoners also made it to the social space of a CdV album. Next to the image of the unnamed young, black man is a portrait of Sher Ali Afridi, identified as the man who in 1872 murdered the fourth Viceroy of India, Richard Southwell Bourke or Lord Mayo, sending shockwaves across Britain. In England and Wales, police had begun commissioning photographic portraits of prisoners in the early 19th century but with the invention of CdVs, studio photographers were brought in to take photographs and most often made prisoners pose in regular studio poses. A CdV such as the one of Sher Ali would be have been replicated multiple times and circulated as a grim reminder of the grave difficulties of working in the colonies and as visual, sensationalised evidence of a hardened criminal.
The CdV albums in the Sarmaya collection are mostly unidentified, cannot be traced back to a single owner and often could have been catalogued by the collector or art dealer auctioning the object. This brings up interesting questions about the kind of narrative woven in some albums, as both portraits of European and Indian subjects sit alongside, brought together from possibly different albums.
There’s also an added layer of investigation by either the album owner, collector or dealer annotating the album in their own way. In one of the albums in the Sarmaya collection, there’s a meticulous identification of photographs done with handwritten labels. In another, there’s stickers pasted onto the album, either mirroring the aesthetic of the sitter or creating a fashion statement of its own.
In this layering of the photographic albums of the 19th century, in the subject and materiality of the CdVs and Cabinet Cards, is the history of technology, socio-political events and culture framed by colonial encounters. Anthropology and art historian Christopher Pinney has described photographs as never being still or silent. Photographs, theorised by scholars as objects with social biographies, cannot be only examined and interpreted at the point of their creation but in their continuous consumption across time and space. Therefore to interpret the Cabinet Card or the CdV is to examine its subject matter, materiality and mobility.
CdVs and Cabinet Cards that were earlier looked at as frivolous objects of personal and social consumption are increasingly being seen as tools for historical research, and even though their production declined in the late 19thcentury, their appearances in the 21st century at auctions and with collectors is testament to their lasting significance. Perhaps one day, the digital archive of selfies we leave behind on Instagram might also evoke a similar curiosity in historians of future. With our staged poses and carefully crafted captions, who knows what clues we might be giving away.
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Karlekar, Malavika. “Visual Histories: Photography in the popular imagination.” Oxford University Press, 2013.
Grewal, Jagtej Kaur. “REPRESENTATIONS OF ROYALTY: PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAITURE IN PRINCELY PUNJAB.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 73 (2012): 729-36.
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Burstow, Stephen. “The Carte de Visite and Domestic Digital Photography.” Photographies, 9 (2016): 287-305