The carte de visite photograph was a portrait format popular with professional photographers from 1859 to the end of the 19th century, though it persisted until the 1920s. Its origins with small paper photographic prints pasted to visiting cards gives it its name. Photographers frequently referred to this format as a "card photograph" after the 1860s.
Typically, the carte de visite was a vertical image on thin photographic paper, mounted on a 4 ¼ x 2 ½ inch piece of Bristol paper or cardstock. It was one of the first inexpensive methods of portraiture, due to its small size, inexpensive materials, and the special multi-lens cameras that could produce multiple images from the same sitting. The carte de visite was cheaper to reproduce and less delicate compared to the daguerreotype, making it an appropriate choice for sharing and trading. It could also be reproduced in mass quantities for widespread distribution.
The carte de visite format first appeared in the United States in the summer of 1859, five years after the format was patented in Paris. It quickly became a popular phenomenon in Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. The carte de visite remained enormously popular through the 1860s, with tens of millions produced in the middle of the decade. It was used for portraits representing the full spectrum of society, from slaves, and working people, to popular celebrities, heads of state and royalty.
The cards often carry the name and location of the photographer printed either on the front border of the card below the photograph or in a design on the reverse side. These decorative "backstamps" often included promotional messages and illustrations. Typically, the photographic trade was made up of both resident photographers with permanent studios and traveling itinerants with mobile studios set up in wagons or tents. Due to the wide array of skills and technical knowledge results by these photographers are uneven. Photographic studios were seen as a way to gain wealth quickly, creating many short lived studios and inconsistent image quality. By 1870, the business was quite competitive.
Most early cartes de visite were prints on albumen paper, recognizable by their warm sepia and yellow hues. In the late 1880s and 1890s the introduction of matte collodion, silver gelatin and gelatin bromide papers resulted in images closer to the tones now associated with black and white images. Over time, early thin buff-colored cards gave way to thick cardstock in various colors with printed or embellished edges, gilding, embossing, and other decorative touches. During the latter part of the 19th century, cartes de visite were largely replaced by the cabinet card due to the larger size and higher image quality of the latter.
One of the keys to the success of the carte de visite portrait was its relative affordability. In 1870, one dollar for six or twelve was common. Backstamps and other promotional materials usually noted that the studio preserved all negatives so customers could obtain reprints at a later date.
Cartes de visite of the 1860s had a highly formalized portrait style based on portrait paintings. The lengthy exposure times necessitated the use of braces and head-clamps that limited natural poses. Full-length portraits were common along with vignettes and creative borders for bust portraits. A wide range of studio props, including pastoral backdrops, furniture, mantle pieces and faux fences were common. Smaller items such as books, musical instruments, hunting rifles, bicycles, and so on frequently offer clues to the occupation or interests of the subject.
The majority of cartes de viste are individual portraits, but many are of families, school classes, and athletic teams. Aside from portraiture, the carte de visite format was also used for outdoor views of buildings, public events, nature scenes, and for promoting commercial products. Carte de visite landscape views were often printed from stereograph negatives and twin-lens stereo cameras were occasionally used in the studio to produce cartes de visite portraits. From 1864 to 1866, cartes de visite were taxed as paper products, and bear tax stamps. At times, photographers would add hand coloring to the photographs to add a more life-like quality.
The immense popularity of carte de visite collecting drove the development of the photograph album. Albums with precut and standardized slots were produced so the carte de visite could be inserted easily. The popularity of albums kept the carte de visite largely the same standard size. Widely available images of celebrities, art work, politicians and occasional outdoor views could be added to a family album. Cartes de visite often functioned as cultural currency, and as Oliver Wendell Holmes called them, "sentimental greenbacks of civilization."
The introduction of personal cameras, particularly the Kodak roll film cameras of the 1880s, began to divert interest away from studio photos in favor of snapshots, which tended to be more candid and more often outdoors. The development of heavier printing papers that did not need to be mounted also reduced the popularity of cartes de visite and card photographs. By the turn of the century, a proliferation of standard and non-standard size photographs dominated the market, ending the four decade run of the carte de visite.