And furthermore ...

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Friday, 13 November 2015


Back stamps and design on cartes de visite and cabinet cards.
 “Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.”
Walt Disney

For some people, the pleasure in collecting cartes de visite and cabinet cards lies entirely on the reverse, in the stamps that identify the studio and sometimes advertise the range of services. This is understandable. The images on the other side are often commonplace and uninteresting while the back carries an intricate design that can also be a code. This stamp on the back of a cabinet card from the Phebus studio in Constantinople is dominated by Apollo, the god of the sun and of light – AKA Phoebus Apollo - an obvious choice for a photographic studio. Apollo could also be a god of truth, which again makes sense for a photographic studio, since that was what they purported to offer. Note the idealized Ottoman script at the top and the French Photographie. Without knowing who runs the studio we can tell from the French that he was Armenian, because French was the lingua franca of the Armenia business community in Constantinople. Sure enough, Phebus was run by Boğos Tarkulyan, one of the better known photographers in town around the turn of last century. The Art Nouveau pattern was a deliberate nod to contemporary ideas in Western Europe, identifying Tarkulyan as someone less, or even not, interested in Ottoman traditions. The choice of flower in the frames at the top would have been conscious too. It may be amaryllis, which has some connection with Apollo, but that’s only a guess.

 The study of the backs of CDVs and cabinet cards is a branch of iconography, specifically one that can trace its origins back to the frontispieces found in books from the sixteenth century through to the beginning of the nineteenth. The frontispiece could be a declaration of intent or an acknowledgement of a patron’s greatness but were never just random images. It was intended to be read in minute detail and required knowledge of biblical imagery as well as more demotic symbols. By the 1860s, when this carte was produced, the art and meaning of frontispieces had fallen out of use but Theophile Gastonguay evoked them with the image of a beaver. Although the beaver did not become the official emblem of Canada until 1975, it had been commonly used as a symbol of Canada since the seventeenth century.

 Archibald McDonald ran a photography studio in Melbourne throughout the gold rush. Like every other studio photographer in Melbourne at this time he came from another country, from Nova Scotia in fact, just a spit away (in Canadian distances) from Theophile Gastonguay. You might wonder why St George and not a kangaroo but there we see the difference a century and a half of colonization can make. Although by the 1860s people around the world recognized the kangaroo as Australian, it wasn’t a national symbol. Australia (AKA “The Colonies”) didn’t have such a thing, or if it did it was likely to be St George’s dragon, which, like Australia, was proudly British. Archibald McDonald: logic tells us he was of Scottish background and he might have been the type to give a Glasgow kiss to anyone who called him British, but St George here doesn’t stand for England so much as a landmark in Melbourne. Long gone now, once upon a time everyone in Melbourne knew where St George’s Hall was.

 A similar thinking may have been behind Louis of Paris’s depiction of the Porte St Martin, which then as today was close by the central shopping district. Firstly it told customers the studio was located in one of the more salubrious areas, and then it told them how to get there. Notice it was opposite the Theatre de l’Ambigu, a place made famous by Louis Daguerre’s set designs.

Migevant’s studio may not have been at such a desirable address as Louis’ but no Parisian had to ask where the Place de la Bastille was. When this CDV was produced in the early 1870s there couldn’t have been too many people around who remembered the Revolution and the storming of the Bastille in 1789 but enough would have recalled the glorious revolution of 1830, which the July Monument seen here honoured. Essentially the French replaced one monarch with another, which is a little like stumbling from one failed relationship with a drunken philanderer straight into another. Today the Boulevarde Beaumarchais is lined with shops selling antique cameras.

The back stamp can be evidence. In 1876 Alfred Mayman took over the Temple Photographic Gallery at 170 Fleet St in London. Two years later the City of London dismantled the Temple Bar on account of Fleet Street needing widening and the structure was dilapidated. The sections were carefully stored and in 1880 Henry Meux bought it and reassembled it on his estate in Hertfordshire. In 1984 it was bought back from Meux’s descendants and re-erected in Paternoster Square. All this to say that there was only a two year period between 1876 and 1878 when there was any practical purpose for Mayman to have an illustration of the structure on the back of his CDVs. We don’t need any other information to date the image.  

 Images of cherubs with cameras are common, as is the inclusion of an artist’s palette, but what does it mean? Strictly speaking, these round and flabby infant creatures are Putti: cherubs have several heads and bits of eagle and lion attached to them. The precise symbolic meaning of the Putti is not understood but since the late Renaissance they have had an association with the arts, and music in particular. Originally the true artist had his muse, a goddess, who inspired him and for whom he created. The little toddlers might have been intended to suggest the playfulness every serious artist needs but also, babies were the inevitable result of creative coupling. In the way that a red and blue barber’s poles once indicated a place to have a bit of bloodletting and these days means a haircut, Monge, and every other photographer who used the imagery saw it as an icon not a symbol.

 Just to reinforce the point (somewhat), we find exactly the same image on the reverse of a CDV by a studio located on Rue de la Sabliere. The companies that printed the blanks for CDVs usually have their name in small letters down the bottom. We don’t get any such on either Monge or the Sabliere studio card and while we could assume the same company produced the blanks, it is also possible that several bought their designs from another source. Somebody could have produced this image of the putto, sold it on to the printers who then customized it for the various studios who used them.  

This palette is also very common, with a fairly obvious interpretation although it ought to be pointed out that few commercial photographers thought of themselves as artists in the way that people used that word even in the relatively staid 1860s. ‘Artist’ was a kind of password for quality of technique rather than ideas. Apart from being a photographer, Camille Benoit was an art dealer, so he may have seen the image as a pun. 

 Harrison Nathaniel Rudd ran his studio in Costa Rica around the turn of last century, as board mounted photographs were giving way to postcards. Costa Rica was relatively prosperous and peaceful at this time, meaning an American could operate a studio with some confidence it would not be closed down or he would have to get out at short notice. This rather elegant design may have also come from a template customized to his requirements. Or not. There is a pun here as well, in the idea of the woman’s hand holding out a carte or cabinet card. A camera is depicted at the top of the crest.  Maybe Rudd also had cartes with the same back design that the hand holds out.


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