Thursday, September 7, 2017

Reuniting a Collection: The Importance of Carte de Visite Albums to Victorian Society

Francisca Tejada de Orendain and daughters, Hipolita and Virginia, Portraits from the Hipolita Orendain de Medina correspondence and miscellany, MSP 1441
While today we might have separate digital albums to display albums of photos to our friends through Facebook or Flickr, the Victorians made their advances in photographic technology a fad of their own. The development of being able to have multiple, identical albumen-print photographs that could be pasted onto uniform, 2 ½-by 4-inch cards transformed possibilities for the distribution of images. While previously images were exposed directly onto the surface of the object that would become the "photograph," as in daguerreotypes and tintypes, cartes de visite came from a single negative, meaning that one could give their portraits to numerous individuals without multiple sittings. To incentivize the mass consumption of the new technology—called “cartomania,” as noted by Andrea L. Volpe—people could purchase photo albums which were specially formatted for cartes de visite. According to Olivier Debroise, these albums became "an indispensible object in homes after 1865" and were "exhibited from time to time" to guests in formal parlor rooms, filled with images of personal acquaintances and purchased copies of famous public figures. Collecting photographs became a new form of social "networking."
Beatriz and Adolfo Quevedo, Portraits from the Hipolita Orendain de Medina correspondence and miscellany, MSP 1441 
Hipolita Orendain de Medina (c.1847-c.1922), a Mexican-born San Franciscan socialite and author, gathered a large assortment of such carte de visite photographs, now held by the California Historical Society as an example of this type of Victorian collecting. Her particular assemblage of images, however, is at once unique to her position as a Mexican American woman connected to both of her countries, and classically Victorian for the array of images from her family, friends, and local celebrities. Many of the former images were taken in Mexico at studios in Guadalajara, Colima, Mexico City, or Acapulco, as Mexico also engaged in the carte de visite trading tradition, while most of the United States photographs came from San Francisco studios. The difference in the dress and poses is negligible, but the San Francisco images of Mexican Americans succeed in revealing a section of society often invisible in discussions of post-Civil War era San Francisco that largely ignore the region's past as Mexican territory. The visual unity of Mexican, Mexican American, and Anglo American subjects also shows that this trend was a cross-border phenomenon, and with her background, Hipolita could bring images together as equally part of her world and a representation of who was important to her identity.

Concepcion Navarro de Camarena and child, Hipolita Orendain de Medina correspondence and miscellany, MSP 1441
When Hipolita Orendain de Medina’s papers and photographs were accepted by the California Historical Society, the portraits were removed from the rest of the collection and filed alphabetically amongst the other images in the Society's large portrait collection. While this gave the individuals an identity, the dispersed images, most of which had personalized messages to Hipolita on the back, meant that the care that Hipolita put into gathering her album was lost. Now, back together, the connections Hipolita had with the Mexican American community in San Francisco and her family in Mexico emerge. This unification provides a complete view of Hipolita’s social circle available for researchers, and perhaps more insight into the Victorian era than the images could on their own.

Pablo Rocha & Portu, recto and verso, Portraits from the Hipolita Orendain de Medina correspondence and miscellany, MSP 1441
Louisa Brandt
Library and Collections Intern, California Historical Society


"A Brief History of the Carte de Visite." The American Museum of Photography. 2004. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Debroise, Olivier. Mexican Suite: A History of Photography in Mexico.  Translated by Stella de Sá Rago. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2001.

No Rooms of Their Own: Women Writers of Early California, 1849-1869. Edited by Ida Rae Egli. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 1997.

Shields, David S. "Buying and Selling Cabinet Cards 1865-1905." Broadway Photographs. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Volpe, Andrea L. "The Cartes de Visite Craze," The New York Times. August 6, 2013. 

No comments: