When Paul Delaroche, the French artist, saw his first daguerreotype, he was shocked into saying, "from today painting is dead."
The painted miniature portrait was indeed done in by this ingenious invention. For the first time, the average person could have his image reproduced cheaply and quickly. Daguerre's method was cumbersome, however, and the results often disappointing. It, too, became obsolete after an innovative technique appeared on the scene for making multiple paper prints from a negative.
When a young Parisian photographer, Adolphe Eugene Disderi experimented by dividing one collodion-coated glass plate into 10 rectangles, then exposing them simultaneously or in a series, he found that 10 tiny portraits could be printed at one time. Exploiting this labor-saving idea, he pasted the 6x9 centimeter photograph on the back of an ordinary calling card to begin a new fad. The invention, patented in 1854, became a hot commercial success, the carte de visite.
A budding entrepreneur who had previously tried other occupations unsuccessfully, Disderi learned to pose his subjects naturally from his modest career in the theater. This talent was praised in the French press, and by 1855, records indicate Disderi's business required as many as 77 employees. Despite a financial setback, his reputation for the carte de visite soon brought him world fame and great wealth.
Art historian Elizabeth Ann McCauley has written a carefully researched biography of Disderi and the impact that his mass-produced cartes had on French culture, society and painting during the mid-19th Century. If the art world's antagonism toward photography later gave way to an exchange of ideas, it was because curious painters like Degas and Manet (among others) found the new medium intriguing enough to study as a resource for their own work.
Fascinating evidence of how this influence developed is documented in some of the 204 illustrations that enhance the book. The reader can compare a carte de visite that Degas pasted in one of his sketchbooks with a painting he completed about 1864 of the same subject, Pauline de Metternich. Other plates make it clear how often Manet relied on photography as inspiration for poses, borrowing details from various cartes.
This practice became so widespread that painters had to guard against accusation of plagiarism. A court decision in 1862 legally acknowledged that photographs are works of art "in portraits, in the posing of the subject, the arrangement of the costumes and accessories."
Even today, critics looking back at these early cartes tend to discount their effect on what had previously been the sole domain of the artist, classifying them as merely charming historical relics. Yet in her examination of several technical manuals published by Disderi, McCauley shows that he provided criteria for obtaining an aesthetic portrait. In addition to giving technical information, Desderi advised others to put subjects at ease and become aware of the personality behind the features. "One must be able to deduce who the subject is," he wrote, "to deduce spontaneously his character, his intimate life, his habits; the photographer must do more than photographe, he must biographe. "
Tracing the origins of the carte de visite's mass appeal, McCauley suggests that the portraits were first popularized by the aristocracy and then caught on with the general public who mimicked upper-class dress and manners. The craze spread, and elegant albums were introduced to facilitate collecting. Accumulating little images in large velvet books was a fashion that McCauley interprets as an "elevation of the photographic album to the status of an icon." The passion for this pastime seemed to her to have an almost religious fervor.
As a historian, McCauley adds substantially to our understanding of the history of both photography and art, but as a social commentator who sees a direct correlation between the carte de visite and the period's "insidious transformation of the individual into a malleable commodity," she overstates the contribution of the little calling card to the Angst of the modern world.
The overwhelming demand for the carte de visite, according to McCauley, represented an "early step toward the simplification of complex personalities into immediately graspable and choreographed performers whose faces rather than actions win elections and whose makeup rather than morals gains public approbation."
In this awkwardly phrased final sentence of the book, McCauley sums up her theme. She identifies the source of mass media's pervasive power to dehumanize the individual as the carte de visite.
Many traditional peoples believe the photographer can capture his subject's soul through the click of a shutter. McCauley seems to take this view one step further. Not only does the "choreographed" subject surrender his individuality when transformed into a "graspable" image, but society as a whole loses the ability to differentiate appearance from reality, "faces" and "makeup" from "actions" and "morals."
McCauley's attempts to determine the cause of modern alienation lead her into philosophically murky depths, but her book remains a rewarding addition to the history of the visual arts.