And furthermore ...

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Sunday, 3 April 2011


Occupational Cartes de Visite
“Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do.”
Oscar Wilde

By definition a profession requires a university education and a trade time spent learning the ropes as an apprentice. Occupation refers to the means by which someone makes a living. In London Labour and the London Poor Henry Mayhew listed hundreds of occupations from costermongering to street criers that have vanished from his city today. Dictionaries of historical slang make it evident that the Victorian underworld was as structured and stratified as polite society. The thief who stole the ladders from night carts and used them to break into houses were somewhat lower in status that the pickpockets. Then there were occupations like bookselling, which were legal although survival and prosperity depended on a ruthless streak and the negation of all scruples. A good bookseller saw nothing wrong in forging plates and rebinding someone else’s work to call it their own. If you want to know why Marx was so popular in the 19th century you only have to look at the economic structure of the labour market. Somebody had to try to restore its sanity.

In a sense all cartes de visite are occupational portraits since the people who sat for the photographer intended to show their position in society and in a rigidly stratified world a man’s moustache and the cut of his coat were evidence of where he stood, but so to was the uniform and the tools of his trade. We have been left with an abundance of images of carpenters, cobblers, priests, scholars, domestics, bankers and merchants. We can safely say that someone photographed every occupation in the 19th century and it’s our good fortune that a lot of these photographs still survive.

Travellers to the Orient tended as a matter of course to photograph representatives of the various occupations they encountered and it is easy enough to tell whether a CDV of a street trader was intended as an example or as a more subjective portrait. Most were the former so the rickshaw hauler or the Egyptian barber were inevitably types rather than individuals. With Europeans it’s a little harder to tell. We know that Charles Fredericks and Jeremiah Gurney received commissions to photograph American Civil War officers and sometimes all the members of a particular unit, and probably the same happened in Europe. Some of the military portraits floating about today must have originally been elements from such projects. There were also socially concerned photographers like Paul Martin who documented the inhabitants of slums though their focus was just as narrow. The only example that springs to mind of a European who set out to photograph other Europeans as a systematic typology of occupations was William Carrick in Russia. Presumably other photographers thought the idea too ambitious and not economically viable.

It has been left to us to construct the typology, which is not such a bad thing. Being removed by time and blessed with a certain ignorance we are more inclined to be democratic. To us a carpenter, an army officer and a domestic occupy the same level of interest when in their world they had little to do with one another socially and did their best to keep it that way. There’s always an issue when constructing these systems as to when and whether we stop seeing the subjects as individuals and see them as representations instead. Then again, the CDV format and the limited approaches photographers used tended to reduce people to types anyway. If we see ‘the soldier’ instead of ‘a soldier’, it’s quite likely the photographer dealing with a few dozen customers every day did too.


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