Graphoscope and Cartes de Visite

Graphoscope is the name of this device that makes the experience of viewing photographs more immersive and interesting. By putting our eyes very close to the huge magnifying glass that sits on top of the front panel, a photograph, even of a very modest size, fills our visual field and we can make out much more details than looking at it directly. It’s a somewhat indescribable experience because of the likely low expectation and the enchanting effect this simple feature produces. It’s as if we’ve penetrated into the realm of the image.

The Graphoscope was the ideal accessory to follow the multiplication of portraits that were exchanged between relatives and friends. From the 1860s onwards, there was a craze for these small portraits called carte de visite. They were made in professional studios and bought in sets that could run to many dozens, depending on the subject’s popularity and budget. The daguerreotype, being a unique piece, would not serve this purpose. Talbot’s process, by using paper as a negative, did not produce enough detail for such small prints as the texture of the paper overlapped them. It was the introduction of the glass negative with processes such as collodion and albumen printing that made this new photography product possible and a huge success.

The cartes de visite were photographs mounted on a more robust cardboard support. Albumin usually uses a very thin paper and has a glossy finish in brown tones that is very well presented in this type of montage. The cards are decorated with metallic ornaments and decals that usually bear the imprint of the photographer and his studio.

In Cassell’s Cyclopaedia of Photography from 1911 we have the entry above. It shows the official dimensions of the carte de visite:

  1. Cardboard:  4 1/8  x  2 1/2″ (104 x 64 mm)
  2. Print carte de visite Nº1:  3 5/8  x  2 3/8″ (92 x 60 mm)
  3. Print carte de visite Nº2:  3 1/2  x  2 1/4″ (89 x 57 mm)

I read on Wikipedia that Desdéri even patented the carte de visite and that he invented a camera with multiple lenses to be able to create a matrix (a negative) capable of printing several copies in a single contact.

Above is the carte de visite that Desdéri made with Napoleon III himself. It’s a little faded but we can see the photographer’s name on the left side and the word “Déposé” on the right, which means that the intellectual property of this type of photograph was legally required by the author. The original of this copy is in the Photo Library of Switzerland.

The cartes de visite were a craze. Collecting them and observing them on a graphoscope was a delightful pastime among friends. The portraits could be simple, just to record the features of the subject, but also many productions creating characters can be found. The backgrounds are neutral, dark or light, with gradient edges, but they can also show country scenes, sophisticated interiors or architecture that the photographer arranged in his studio. It usually used a painted background and some foreground objects.

As an image, the carte de visite didn’t come out of nowhere. Above is a showcase of the National Museum in Warsaw with miniature portraits from the 18th century. There was a special category of painters, so-called miniaturists who formed a separate category in the arts. They specialized in producing these portraits in sizes very close to future cartes de visite. The miniature was widely used by wealthy, generally noble families, both for memory and to make known, to someone far away, the features of the portrayed person. In a time when marriages were arranged, often at a distance, this need sometimes became very pressing for those involved.

With this precedent, the daguerreotype did not need to apologize for its equally reduced size. The portrait above, from 1848, is just 7.0 x 8.2 cm. In addition to the need for conservation, the nice case in which they were mounted with metallic ornaments undoubtedly refers to the frames of their predecessors painted miniatures.

The carte de visite came from the same lineage but for a much larger audience. They kept the small size, the idea of a second support that created a border to simulate a minimal effect of a frame, and even a remnant of the ornaments in the photographer’s logo, metallic and in low relief.

About 20 years later, it was the turn of a larger format with the card measuring, according to Cassell’s,   6 5/8  x 4 1/4″ (168 x 108 mm) and three options for the size of the photo itself  were available:

  1. Nº1    5 1/2  x  4″ (138 x 102 mm)
  2. Nº2   5 3/4  x  4″ (146 x 102 mm)
  3. Special 6  x  4 1/4″ (152 x 108 mm)

This was the format known as a carte cabinet. But in the literature the two are usually referred to only as carte for a carte de visite and cabinet for a carte cabinet. Cabinet portraits were still done mainly with albumen prints, but they began to share the scene with the first silver gelatin papers. Another feature of this new format is that the back started to be used more, bringing information as a space for dedications, in addition to the photographer’s name and the usual ornaments.

For those who want to delve into the subject, there is a book called The Studios of Europe, of 1882, in which the author, H. Baden Pritchard, gives names, addresses, and describes the practices of the most prominent studios in Europe. He commented extensively on the formats that were in fashion and even prices charged for the originals and subsequent copies.

This is an example showing 15 copies as being an apparently normal prints order. The choice between with or without vignette, the effect of gradually eliminating the background, as in the carte de visita by photographer H. Becker from Antwerp, reproduced above, was a choice previously arranged between the photographer and his client as it was already included in the price list . The book also includes detailed descriptions of the studios and some equipment such as backgrounds and type of lighting. It is indeed a very rich source about the practice of professional portraits in those times.

Above, in the graphoscope, a full-length portrait in cabinet special format. The permanence and quality that hundreds of thousands of these photographs maintain to this day is impressive. Especially if we consider that they were commercials, made by studios that are often small and without museological pretensions.

Most graphoscopes also featured the possibility to observe cards and photographs in three dimensions. Collecting three-dimensional images was another practice that gained strength with glass plates, as early as the 1860s, and lasted until the mid-twentieth century, mainly monuments, architecture and tourist attractions, but also nature, such as landscapes and animals, ethnographic presenting people and cultures outside the European axis and the erotic ones that today animate the auctions of old photographs commanding high prices. If it is difficult to describe the effect that cartes de visite or cabinet have when viewed through a magnifying glass, in the case of stereographs, another name for three-dimensional photos, you really only need to see to feel the impact that such a resource can cause, so banal that boils down to just showing two photos at the same time.

When closed, the graphoscope takes the form of a small box and can be easily stored in a bookcase or drawer. This is a simple model but there are some that, on the same principle, feature very refined marquetry work,  gilded engraving or mother-of-pearl inlays.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.