Wednesday 11 March 2009

Contexts for cartes

To my eye, a carte-de-visite is an unforgettable object – it is physically tiny but often has a big visual wallop.

What is a carte-de-visite? An albumen photograph, usually measuring about 115 by 65 millimetres, is glued directly onto a thin piece of card. Frequently the photographer’s name is printed on the card’s back. Cartes were the first photographs to enter a mass market – they were cheap to manufacture, affordable and quickly reproducible.

Unlike either the daguerreotype or the ambrotype, that were current from the early 1840s to the early 1860s, carte-de-visites became widely fashionable as a visual memento. Prior to this, photographic portraits were not accessible to the public because they just cost too much.

Patented by the French portrait photographer André Disdéri in 1854, the carte- de-visite was rapidly taken up and just as suddenly dropped as a portrait process. By 1880 making cartes had almost ceased as a studio practice. The name carte came about because it was thought people who had a miniature portrait made would use them as visiting cards. Mostly, cartes entered family photo-albums or were presented as visual keepsakes to relatives and friends.

One of the first New Zealand artists to advertise the benefits of his daylit Auckland studio was the very media savvy John Nichol Crombie (1827 - 1878). He was the artist who created the moving ambrotype portrait of Tamati Waka Nene in his photographic ‘rooms’ (Auckland War Memorial Museum Library collection, catalogue number GN672.2 N437). From 1855 to 1873, Crombie was one of New Zealand’s most prolific photographers, firstly with daguerreotypes and later with albumen prints. While he produced some landscapes, his speciality was creating portraits of individuals in his daylit studio.

Crombie’s portraits reveal his subtlety at arranging his sitter, the look of their costume and the disposition of the surrounding furniture, textiles and flat backdrop. This young boy looks down and beyond the plate camera while wearing day clothes very similar to those worn by the day students at Auckland’s Church of England Grammar School - where brilliant painter/photographer/ chaplain the Reverend Dr John Kinder was Master. The way that the boy has utilised the highly polished table to steady himself and the relaxed nature of his pose is typical of Crombie’s skill as a portrait artist.

The finest carte-de-visite portraitist in England was, arguably, Camille Silvy the French aristocrat who had a portrait studio from 1859 to 1869 at Porchester Terrace, London. He had exceptional control of his studio’s natural lighting and created portraits with exceptional sharpness. Silvy also achieved terrific naturalism by getting his subjects to sit in wonderfully relaxed poses. He frequently recorded grand sitters so his skills soon made him very famous. This woman is shown turning away from reading the book she is holding, such a casual and carefree gesture was still uncommon in studio portraits.

Frederick Irwin operated the London Portrait Rooms at Princes Street in Dunedin. He rapidly became well known because his portraits were considered much better than what any daguerreotype could offer. His sitters frequently reveal a more dashing élan than those of his competitor William Meluish, who was better at taking landscape views. This portrait is ultra-stylish, almost rakish. The matching tweed waistcoat and trousers, with the dapper over-coat, could almost be something that we see in a wonderful contemporary fashion show by WORLD at Auckland.

John Nichol Crombie (1827 - 1878) Scotland/Australia/New Zealand
Unknown schoolchild circa 1865
Albumen print carte-de-visite
Private collection

Frederick H. Irwin, operating as the London Portrait Rooms
(active 1863 – 1875) New Zealand
Unknown student circa 1865
Albumen print carte-de-visite
Private collection

Camille Silvy (1834 -1910) France/England
Miss Helen Faniet circa 1860
Albumen print carte-de-visite
Private collection

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