A. A. E. Disdéri and the Carte de Visite Portrait Photograph

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In 1854 the young aspiring photographer A. A. E. Disdéri patented the carte de viste, a relatively inexpensive photograph the size of a traditional calling card. This invention marked the beginning of popular photography, the first step in the transformation of the medium from a unique recording of the world on a daguerrian plate into a commonplace, disposable item taken for granted by its urban clientele.

In this carefully documented book, Elizabeth Anne McCauley traces Disdéri’s successes and failures, using his career as the framework against which to describe the history and significance of his most successful product. The carte becomes a unique means for McCauley to examine the social and cultural life of the mid-19th-century French middle class—their morals and manners, fashions and obsessions. McCauley finds that the cartes became a great equalizer, allowing bourgeois Parisians to examine and, in effect, bring into their living rooms the famous politicians, actors, dance-hall girls, and writers in the photographs. The carte also gave the bourgeoisie the opportunity to dress in their Sunday best and record their own lineage, just as the well‑to-do had done for centuries in painted portraits.

McCauley shows that the proliferation of the carte had a marked effect not only on society but also on portrait painting, especially on the styles and compositions of young artists such as Manet, Degas, Monet, and Renoir. Her multifaceted study thus provides a new perspective on art history, French culture, and photography.

Yale University Press
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