William Henry Fox Talbot introduced photography to England in 1839. Due to the cumbersome equipment and time and expense required, photographs were the exclusive purview of the wealthy. In the 1850s, however, commercial cartes-de-visite with photographic portraits (the size of business cards today) became, as Daniel says, “wildly, wildly popular – a worldwide phenomenon.” Collecting and displaying these pictures fueled a fad called “cartomania.” When Queen Victoria had her portrait made in the 1860s, 3 million to 4 million copies were made and sold. “It was the Facebook of the 1860s,” according to Daniel.
This accessibility and democratizing effect posed a problem for the “upper ten thousand” of high-society England. Wishing to re-establish the display of photographs as an elite activity, amateur artists adopted a cut-and-paste technique that required ample leisure not available to the masses. The female album creators collaged images of family, friends, and celebrities, mixing fact (photographs) and fancy (the sometimes irreverent settings they drew).
Standard art history credits Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque with inventing the collage in 1912. Not so. These amateur artists were more “avant” than the 20th-century avant-gardists. Some of their bizarre juxtapositions also anticipate the antic scenarios of the Surrealists.
“The most creative part,” Daniel says, “is not the photographs but how they were combined.” Just one generation after the birth of photography and long before Photoshop and digital manipulation of images – the current craze in contemporary art – these ladies were cropping and splicing with giddy abandon.