Dreams of Ordinary Life: Cartes-de-visite and the bourgeois imagination


Batchen, Geoffrey. ‘Dreams of Ordinary Life: Cartes-de-visite and the bourgeois imagination’ Photography: Theoretical Snapshots (Oxon: Routledge, 2009) p.80-97


[…] the search for imagination in the carte-de-visite must be directed elsewhere, away from the usual focus on photographer and subject, and instead onto the minds eye of their viewers.[?]


Compared to earlier processes such as the daguerrotype, this [the carte-de-visite] vastly increased the degree of theatricality and control that the customer had over his or her final image.

As a consequence, the power of creation was transferred from the photographer, who was often no more than an operator behind a fixed camera, to the subject, who got  to make sll orts of shoices about how they wished to appear.

More accurately,  the authorship of carte portraits came to be a fluid affair in which both photographer and subject had an active part.


[Batchen describes carte-de-visites of an unknown man and Napoleon III] Collapsing the distinction between ruler and ruled, such pictures propose a synthesis of national and popular sovereignty; beneath their subterfuge of apparent pandering, these images actually signify the political victory of the

[regarding these two portraits] For us today one of these portraits has a name and the other does not, but it is the unnamed man who has now  taken on the greater power – representing a generic bourgeois subject, he is the one who induces fear and loathing in photography’s historians.


Part of that power derives from his blank indifference to the singularity that most historians hold so dear; he steadfastly refuses to comply with their monotonous art historical discourse on meaning, origin and the intending constituent subject, themes which, as Michel Foucault puts it, ‘guarantee in history the inexhaustable presence of a Logos, the soverignty of a pure subject’ (Foucault 1991:64). This man is instead content to look just like everyone else, impure, a copy of what is already a copy and nothin more. He is all surface and no depth.


[…] what both of these cartes take for granted is that class is a look that can be codified and imitated – it’s a mode of performance rather than an inherent quality.
[describing elaborate stage backdrops] The realism of photography does nothing to hide the in authenticity of these scenes; in fact, it reinforces and exploits it.


In taking on that look, in subsuming their individual selves to it, these subjects performed a ritual of class declaration and belonging. In other words, cartes-de-visite were meant to function as a social device as much as a portrait.
To search for the ‘real’ subject, the inner man or woman, or to lament the the absence of self-expression or overt individuality, is therefore to misunderstand the nature of carte-de-visite photography, which is all about the semiotics of typology
and the sublimation of the individual to the mass.


By adopting mass production as its model, the carte-de-visite transformed photography from a craft into an industry. This industrial outlook was translated into aesthetic terms through the standardization of pose, format and print quality that characterized the typical carte-de-visite portrait. It is this standardization – the very aspect of these photographs denigrated by art historians – that marks the carte-de-visite’s radical modernity as a visual agent of capitalism.


A history organized around proper names and great individual photographers is obviously going to have trouble coping with the divided and multiplied identities of carte-de-visite studios.

The aesthetic of the carte-de-visite portrait was caught up in an economy of repetition and difference, demonstrating a serial mode of production at the level of the image itself that suited the prevailing capitalist consumer society.


All carte-de-visite are [therefore] multiples; the very genre declares the photograph to be a copy for which there is no original. As Walter Benjamin (1969: 224) wrote, ‘to ask for the authentic print makes no sense’ (and one could equally say that to show only one print of any given carte-de-visite is equally non-sensical)

By doing away with uniqueness, [the carte-de-visite] also puts authenticity, and the unspoken authority that comes with it, at risk.

[regarding Queen Victoria’s distributed carte-de-visites] […] Victoria becomes more, rather than less, revered by her subjects but at the price of her own commodification. No longer having a unique existence in time and space, she is only valued as and through reproduction. She becomes an image, an imitation of herself, a ghostly ideological construct.


On the one hand, the carte-de-visite confirmed the existing political order by conforming to  its visual prescriptions. On the other, by eschewing any claims to individuality, creativity, genius, eternal value or mystery, and by overtly presenting itself as a reproducible commodity form, the carte-de-visite undermined the ideological illusions of that same order – it might be said to have embraced capitalism to fatal excess.




Carte-de-visite are often about their own reception, as if to underline the psychological or emotional experience that their viewing entails. Many pictures show people holding open photograph albums or simply feature people looking at another carte. It is a reminder that cartes were scaled to be viewed in the hand rather than on a wall; they were meant to be touched as well as seen.


An examination of such pictures initiates a history of the carte-de-visite that concentrates on their reception as much as their production. Such as history will necessarily displace the emphasis given to innovation, masterpieces, and individual acts of creativity in most prevailing accounts, acknowledging the instead the creative role played by the viewer of photographs.

[In carte-de-visite] Photography’s realism is thereby openly declared to be an artifice, a matter of conventions. For an emotional connection to be established with the subject, a viewer is forced to look beyond these conventions, beyond the surface of the picture and the world it represents.

[…] the very banality of the carte-de-visite portrait, the lack of imagination evidenced in the actual picture is precisely what shifts the burden of imaginative thought from the artist to the viewer.

[on present and past commercial studio practices] To take such images seriously, we must develop a critical history of how the bourgeois  imagination and the processes and effects of photographic reproduction.

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