André Disdéri, the Pioneer of Commercial Photography
Supriya Joshi introduces you to the life and work of André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, the pioneer of commercial photography.
André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri died in a public hospital in Nice, France on 4 October, 1889. He died as a destitute, another unknown face on a hospital bed. And with him passed away a former wealthy innovator and the frontier of a whole new kind of image making.
Photography had taken the world by storm during the 1800s, and the daguerreotype was the most popular medium to make images. Disdéri had dedicated his life to painting and the theater, and an inclination towards photography was inevitable.
In 1847, he turned to photography full time, and began his career as a daguerreotypist in Brest, France.
The Business of Photography
Making daguerreotypes was a long and tedious process. Moreover, Disdéri realised the need for mass producing images, specifically for the French bourgeoisie, who were keen to have their portraits made. It was these incidents which sparked off an idea, which would be the beginning of his very profitable career.
Moving Studios and Innovations
In 1854, he set up a studio in Paris, the hub of all photography-related activity. At that point, photographs also doubled up as visiting cards, which Disdéri built upon and invented the carte de visite. A carte de visite printed eight photographs on a single sheet and were mounted on card paper. These were not only easier to produce, they were also cheaper than daguerreotypes.
To make the carte de visites, Disdéri used a camera with four lenses and a sliding plate holder, a design which was inspired by stereoscopic cameras. Each carte de visite measured 6 x 9cm in size and were thus, easier to distribute.
The novelty of this fast means of making a portrait spread far and wide. Several renowned actors, politicians, singers and dancers all came to Disdéri’s studio to get a portrait made.
A Surprise Visit
In May 1859, while marching to the Second Opium War, Napoleon III, the first President of the French Republic, realised he was close to Disdéri’s photo studio. He immediately halted the march and went to pose for photographs. Once people realised that even presidents were getting their photographs made by Disdéri, customers came flocking to his studio to get their own portrait made.
The Rise and Rise
-By 1861, Disdéri was accounted as the richest photographer in the world. He branched out to Nice, Madrid and London and set up studios there as well. In his Paris studio alone, he made an average of 12,00,000 francs annually, a hefty sum, even by today’s standards. He charged 20 francs for 12 portraits and was averaging about 200 customers per day!
In fact, Disdéri’s carte de visites became so popular, daguerreotypes began declining at a steady rate. Photographer and competitor Nadar said about Disdéri’s invention, “You had to succumb, that is to say, follow the trend or resign.”
In 1871, Disdéri was hired to photograph the Paris Commune, a short-lived, yet bloody communal riots. Disdéri was certainly no war photographer, nor was he trained that way. However, his business acumen was strong, and he realised he could make a good chunk of money with this assignment. Like other photographers covering the Commune, he began by photographing the architectural damage caused by the revolt.
He was then commissioned to photograph the people who died in the war. Several pictures of the revolters lying in their coffins were photographed by Disdéri. But he did not commercialise these photos, and did not make any money from them.
A Victim of his own Invention
It is unfortunate that the things that make us can also break us. The carte de visite was so innovative, yet was also easy to imitate. Photographers from all over the world took advantage of it, and began making carte de visites of their own.
Eventually, Disdéri was out of work. In 1877, he sold his business and moved to Nice. The money he made at the height of his career was over. He became blind, deaf and totally impoverished. And in that hospital bed, he died anonymously.
It has been 125 years since Disdéri passed away, yet we find reflections of his work in picturemaking even today. Despite an unfortunate ending, Disdéri’s life is inspirational, the life of a true master.
“His studio is a temple of photography, a place unique in its luxury and elegance.”
– A visitor of Disdéri’s studio.
This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Better Photography.
Tags: Supriya Joshi, March 2014, French, Andre Disderi, Great Masters