And furthermore ...

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Friday, 16 April 2010


Cartes de visite of actors

“We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”
Oscar Wilde

In October 1871, 19 year old Caroline Gee had her lucky break and was going to London to act in her first big play. Her bags were packed when she started arguing with her father. Throwing a tantrum, she rushed into his darkroom and drank a glass of potassium diluted with water. It isn’t clear whether she did that by accident or in her fit of histrionics but within the hour she was dead. The real point to the story comes in the very last line of the report in the Belfast News. “A replacement for Miss Gee will be found.” The show must go on.

When George Swan Nottage established the London Stereoscopic & Photographic Co. in 1855 it specialized, as the name suggests, in stereoscopic cards. By 1859 it was just as well known for its cartes de visite and even better known as the place to buy portraits of actors. The LSPC was probably the first company to realize that customers weren’t merely buying mementoes, they were also collecting. Whether they wanted one actress or an entire repertory, they weren’t happy if there was an image out there they had missed. Nottage understood the economics of collecting early on and is supposed to have initiated the practice whereby customers could trade cartes at no further cost. That would have made sense. The first trick to making a sale is to get the customer inside and once they were there they were as likely to buy as to trade.

The CDV revolutionized the commerce of photography because it made the idea of buying a portrait of a complete stranger acceptable. It was difficult to do that with daguerreotypes when each was unique and the large format collodion prints available since 1851 were still too expensive. Reproductions of a single image in the CDV format could have enormous print runs, some photographers claiming to have sold around 50 000 cartes of members of the British royal family. Following the exploits of someone famous through the newspapers was one thing, owning an actual portrait of them something on a new level. The CDV also marks the beginning, the real beginning, of the birth of celebrity culture.

The celebrity attached to the arts has always had a necessary element of scandal attached to it. So long as their work was good actors were given licence to behave outside the norms, so Sarah Bernhardt could have a string of lovers and Clara Rousby get into drunken brawls. If they were tragically cut down at a young age it only added to their glamour. When the French actress Rachel, mistress to Napoleon III, died from TB in 1858 engravings based on her deathbed portrait sold in the thousands. The stage also gave people the freedom to behave in ways they otherwise couldn’t. An old queen could act like one in a children’s pantomime and get laughs. If he tried the same in the street he could get arrested. CDVs of James Rogers dressed as a woman were sought after at a time when cross-dressing was a criminal offence in Britain. No one seems to have seen any contradiction in this.

Actors brought one quality to portraiture that is easily overlooked. In the 1860s and into the next decade, cameras were still too slow to capture movement successfully. Most subjects stood or sat as still as they could for the duration of the exposure. Actors on the other hand were professionals when it came to movement. They were trained in freezing an expression or a gesture. No surprise then that portraits of actors are usually far more vivid than those of other people.

In a sense everyone who posed for a carte de visite became an actor. Whether they put on their very best clothes and spent hours attending to their grooming or they stood in their work clothes with their tools of trade at hand, they were playing a role. Actors took that to another level. A portrait of an actor often depended on a knowing falsehood; ‘this is not a photograph of a woman, nor is it a photograph of me. It is just an image’.

George Nottage had other successes. He became an alderman. In 1879 the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Francis Truscott accused him of distributing pornographic images through the LSPC, the evidence being several cartes of naked Zulus. At the council meeting the Mayor was hissed down. In 1884 George Nottage became Lord Mayor himself.


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