Postcards, a modern form of communication within Europe and America, saw huge rise and rapid dissemination between 1880 and 1920 – a period also known as the heyday of the colonial empire. The initial postal mailing cards, officially printed by the Austrian government in 1869, were ‘cards without pictures’. With the ability to convey short and quick messages economically, early postcards gained currency among the masses but were allowed to be sent only within one’s own country. Modern postcards with ‘pictures’ sent across national boundaries emerged in late 1880s with the upgradation of photographic technology (Kodak cameras and processing) to produce mass images in reduced exposure times. This was also accompanied by a new collotype process of colored lithographic reproductions. The collection of coloured illustrations and authentic photographic images of picturesque landscapes, exotic people, monuments of distant lands, as souvenirs, was a new way to comprehend the modern world and orient oneself with the fast circulating knowledge. But modern picturesque postcards as ‘collectibles’ shared a legacy with earlier mass produced carte de visites.
Carte de visites – a form of photographic portraiture of 9x6cm – developed in 1854, by the Parisian photographer Andre Adolphe Disderi, was the earliest form of mass produced ‘cards with pictures’. They were collected, arranged and exchanged among friends and relatives, only to find a place within the recipient’s designed private album. By 1860 to 1870, to pose in the photography studio, in full regalia or in ones best dress, for a personalised carte de visite was all the rage within Europe. Realism in photography, the construction of the ‘self’ (identity) in front of the camera and the circulation of the image within the public sphere, was a unique experience allowing people to develop a sense of collective urban/modern community. It brought ‘familiarity’ among individuals who were grappling with the ‘strange’ maze of the metropolis experience. In Britain, seeing the popularity of cabinet cards, John Edwin Mayall’s album of the British Royal Family was commercially released in 1860 and became a phenomenal success. Collecting commercially produced carte de visites of exotic subjects like native kings, royal families, Nautch girls (from Imperial colonies) and of well-known figures such as Queen Victoria, famous actresses and sportspersons, became a part of fashionable bourgeoisie class hobbies. Soon production and circulation of such commercial images within the colonial cultural systems became part of the modern ‘visual economy¹’. Princely kings within India or on their numerous travels to London emulated British royals by enthusiastically posing in the photography studios, only to gain visibility within the imperial circuits, by letting their iconic images appear in London newspapers, magazines and photo-albums.
At the turn of the last century, when Indian kings were actually losing their power and were under direct suzerainty of colonial rule, circulation of their iconic carte de visites became a way to recover some of their past power and symbolic wealth in public. State photographers were employed by Indian Maharajas to capture their leisure activities, courtly proceedings and family portraits to build their powerful imagery. It was this successful phenomenon of ‘collection’ and ‘diffusion’ of one’s images as a celebrity or as a powerful dignitary within the public sphere that led to the commercial release of various royal albums as carte de visites, which later got transfused onto the surface of inexpensive modern postcards. Celebrity carte de visites, and later postcards, had wholesale and retailer shops in London, France, Germany and other important global centers. Colonial postcards travelled through various international circuits by being photographed in colonies, printed in Europe and posted further afield ant the senders’ whim. Through such dissemination they became part of people’s collections across the globe.
– Sameena Siddiqui
- Deborah Poole, Vision, Race and Modernity: A Visual Economy of the Andean Image World, Princeton University Press, 1997.