Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Carte de Visite Phenomenon

Post by Clayton Lewis, Curator of Graphics

A preoccupation with self-image swept across society when a new technology enabled a flood of inexpensive portrait photographs. The enthusiastic gathering of photographs of friends and public figures and the sharing of them in albums became a social norm. This widespread fixation on portraits was commented upon in the print media and blamed for the rise of a superficial, vain populace that lacked appreciation for substantive culture.

A selection of Cartes de Visite from the David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography.
This could be just another day in the age of the selfie, but it happened in the 1860s with the introduction of the carte de visite photograph. With origins in France and the social tradition of calling card etiquette, the carte de visite was essentially a small card mounted portrait photo. It was cheap, easily available, portable, and could be mass-produced. Following the heavy, jewel-cased Daguerreotype, the carte de visite seemed sleek and modern. It is estimated that the number of cartes de visite produced in the United States was between 300 and 400 million per year during the 1860s, easily ten times the nation’s total population.

Its influence during its heyday was acknowledged by no less a figure than Abraham Lincoln. His statement that “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President” was a reference to the Mathew Brady photo of Lincoln disseminated in massive quantities in carte de visite format prior to the election of 1860.

If the importance of the carte de visite is partly due to its industrial sized production and massive circulation, then it follows that any serious study of this format needs a critical mass as its foundation. At the Clements, that mass has undergone a significant expansion this summer with the addition of approximately 12,000 cartes de visite donated to the David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography. This donation comes from Clements Library Associate David B. Walters, in honor of his parents, Harold L. Walters, University of Michigan class of 1947, Engineering, and Marilyn S. Walters, University of Michigan class of 1950, LSA.

The collector, Dave Tinder, has a great interest in the photographers themselves, and an eye for outstanding and unusual examples. A view of the broad social spectrum that visited 19th century photo studios emerges from the collection. Included are figures from the Michigan state legislature, universities, and colleges, to the scruff and scrum from northern lumber camps and barrooms. The elderly and the newly born, athletes and the infirm are here as well as African Americans, Native Americans, visitors from faraway lands, and those from just around the corner. A strong sense of middle-class mimicking of upper-class behavior is present, people proud of their occupations, examples of high and low fashion, and mysterious and surprising clues to relationships. The Tinder carte de visite collection gives us a sense of what is typical and what is exceptional within 19th century visual culture.

The processing and cataloging of these will take time but we expect that the collection will be at least partially open for research when the Library reopens on campus in 2016.

Related story in Michigan Today: Great Lakes, Even Greater Photography

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