The Photo Album’s Unconventional Journey

This is an example of a carte de visite family album created between 1864–65.

Source/Wikimedia Commons
This is an example of a carte de visite family album created between 1864–65.

Conchita Fernandes traces the history of the photo album, the oldest companion of photographs.

Over the years, the humble photo album has become a reason for friends and family to get together and step into the world of old forgotten memories. However, it did not exactly have such a warm beginning. Let us explore the interesting journey of the photo album.

Photographic Documentation
Did you know that early photo albums began as research journals? During the 1830s and 40s, inventors maintained diaries of their research, which contained photo records of experiments. These were not disclosed as the contents of the albums were considered classified information.

The Beginning of a Trend
In 1854, French photographer André- Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri patented the ‘carte de visite’. These were albumen prints that were later mounted on top of thick card paper. The name of the individual photographed would then be engraved onto the card. Carte de visites were used just like modern day business cards and became popular among the masses.

Introducing Bound Albums
As carte de visites increased in popularity, photography studios began producing cards of famous actors and politicians. These began to be traded among people and became collectibles. Eventually, the need to preserve and store these cards arose and albums in the form of bound books came into being.

Getting Creative
Despite the popularity of these albums, a new breed of collectors emerged, who preferred the idea of scrapbooking. They would cut up photographs and combine them with illustrations, text and other printed material. Carte de visites were also used in these books and they eventually turned into personal diaries.

The Emergence of Cabinet Cards
Meanwhile, in 1866, cabinet cards were introduced. These cards were bigger than the carte de visites and were placed on a cabinet for viewing, hence the name, cabinet cards. They became the most popular medium for displaying portraiture images. Gradually, manufacturers came out with albums that had slots to accommodate these cabinet cards.

Say Cheese!
By the late 19th century, the Kodak film camera was invented. Photographs were now easier to shoot which allowed the common man to make images. With a large inflow of photos, a need for a bigger expandable photo album became necessary. These albums had a leather cover with removable pages. These were joined with a cord and had sleeves to insert the photographs in, unlike earlier bound albums.

A Different Showcase
Have you ever gone through your grandparent’s old photo album? These albums were basically large books with black card paper and photos were stuck to them with glue. This album became popular during the 1950s. Since photographs were glued to its pages, these are reminiscent to the scrapbook style of albums. However they were not ideal for photo preservation as the paper and the glue used had a high acidic content and could lead to the eventual deterioration of prints. In the late 1970s, smaller albums became popular. These were not only portable but made it easy for people to share individual prints and slip them back in the album.

Present-Day Photo Albums
Photo albums today bear only little resemblance to their predecessors. Instead they are in the form of expensive coffee table books. However, the album’s exterior has gone through a radical change. The covers have become even more extravagant, from fur covered exteriors to album covers encrusted in precious stones.

Keeping up with Technology
With the gradual decline of film photography, fewer people are resorting to prints and most people prefer storing their photographs on electronic devices. Even though the world of album making progressed, looking back to its origins provides a wonderful insight to the beginnings of unique image showcases. Albums have allowed us to become storytellers, and even helped us understand our past.

Did You Know?

A Costly Affair
Just like Indian weddings, wedding albums can be extravagant and expensive. They can cost anywhere between Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 5,00,000.

Albums as Private Narratives
It is interesting to note when memoirs and travelogues constitute as autobiographical albums. These albums are personal accounts of its compilers.

Everlasting Prints
To preserve precious moments in the long run, several studios offer its customers with archivalquality paper to print their images on. These prints are expected to last for at least 100 years.

Exchanging Collectibles
Remember exchanging cricket and wrestling trump cards when you were younger? The idea of these cards originated from the frequently traded carte de visites.

Source/Wikimedia Commons

Source/Wikimedia Commons


Photo Album as Documentation
Besides containing information, the census recorded in India during the British period, also included photographs of the citizens. This essentially became a photo record book.

Changing Times
The word ‘album’ has achieved a different connotation today. People now associate it with a Facebook or a Myspace photo album.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Better Photography

Tags: Photo Albums, history, Conchita Fernandes, march 2013, picture Albums, Carte de Visite