In the spring of 2009 I won a period of research leave from the University to develop research on nineteenth-century portrait photography - specifically the carte de visite photograph. Historians of British art have been slow to explore the relationships between photography and fine art practices (although the 2012 exhibition PreRaphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde included some photographs), and so part of my interest was to investigate these objects in relation to other two-dimensional portrait practices of the middle-nineteenth century, including oil portraits, drawings and miniatures.
In my reading through of the scholarly literature on nineteenth-century portrait photography, I was struck by the pre-occupation of writers with explaining the apparent contradiction between the poor quality of carte de visites as portrait images (because they are small, and hard to determine facial features) and the popularity of the carte de visite: the production of these photographs in the 1860s is estimated in the impressive millions. When I read pretty thoroughly the periodical and instructional literature on photography from the 1860s, I was intrigued that contemporaries too tended to find portrait photographs inadequate or deceptive. This led me to the question, if portrait photographs were bad likenesses, in what sense did they function as portraits?
I examined all the nineteenth-century photograph albums held in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery (about 30), and found material that I thought could help me answer the question. These were the two albums which almost certainly belonged to Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, and an album which belonged to Lady Cecelia Mary Jocelyn. Through the photographs of Wilberforce, I explored how his many carte de visite portraits depicted him in different roles in his life, and how he used the occasion of the photographic portrait to record important episodes, so creating likeness through repetition. In the Jocelyn album, I observed how the photographer and album maker borrowed images from fine art to create dramatic narratives, so creating likeness through reference to other images.
The resulting essay was published in Art History, the journal of the Association of Art Historians, in 2012 under the title 'The Carte de Visite in the 1860s and the Serial Dynamic of Photographic Likeness'. I was lucky to be invited to present this material both at the research seminar of the University of Edinburgh and as part of the AHRC Research Network on Likeness and Facial Recognition, and I received useful feedback from audiences at both of those events.