I’m sure I must have come across carts de visites dozens of times while rummaging through books shops and vintage stalls, but it was only last year that I actually began to take real notice of them—and to add them to the other bits of ephemera that increasingly fill my home.
Originating in the mid-1800s and measuring some 2½ by 4 inches, this popular form of small photograph were used as calling cards and as keepsakes. Invented by photographer Louis Dodero but popularised and patented by André Disdéri, they employed Antoine Claudet’s ‘multiplying camera-obscura’ that allowed several images of the subject to be taken quickly. The sitter could choose from the available images or order additional copies at a later date. The phrase ‘copies may be had’ is consequently found on the reverse of many of the cards. In the late 1800s, the collecting and trading of cards became very popular in Europe and the USA; a demand that lasted until the interest in outdoor and informal photography provided other distractions.
Not only are the pictures of the sitters engaging, but the cards often have another equally fascinating element; the wonderful photographer’s advertisements that occupy the reverse of the images. Some of these advertisements use only a minimum of text and detail, while others have beautiful illustrations, motifs or ornamented initials. Each one is a miniature study in design—derived from establishments that have long since disappeared, and from cities and streets that are often changed beyond recognition or have been erased from the urban landscape altogether. They are small, ephemeral links to our collective past.
A number of the photographs from the items I’ve collected are included in a short booklet that I’ve recently published called ‘Copies May be Had‘. More details are available on my website http://www.fastfootpress.co.uk , and copies can be bought from my online shop.