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Musings on Death

I recently acquired a carte-de-visite from a Wellington store which specialises in stamps, postcards, and ‘old photographs’. For those of you unfamiliar with the carte-de-visite (or cdv), it’s a type of photograph patented by Andre Disderi, in Paris, 1853. Disderi invented a camera with multiple lenses, enabling subjects at his studio to leave with a selection of portraits, printed onto albumen paper and mounted onto separate cards of about 6.5x10cm. Easily reproducible, the cdv was intended for distribution to family and friends, and usually collected in albums designed for that purpose.

This new addition to my cdv collection is of an extremely dapper but slightly morose looking young man.  Aged in his early 20s, he slouches in the studio’s padded chair, wearing a suit with a waistcoat, the chain of his fob watch visible. He has a splendid mop of hair that would put Hugh Grant (circa 1995) to shame, and he’d look right at home on the pages of http://mydaguerreotypeboyfriend.tumblr.com.

However, for me, the appeal of this photograph was the name of the photographer, printed on the reverse of the cdv: ‘Henry Death, Portrait Painter & Photographer, 119 Camberwell Road.’ What a fantastic name for a photographer: I can imagine him with a cup of tea in one hand and a scythe in the other. Except the photographers’ scythe is the camera, of course, which relentlessly captures moments now passed, gone, dead. Writers on photography have extensively explored the relationship between photography and death, with Roland Barthes declaring in Camera Lucida, “All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know that they are agents of Death.” (1)

This single cdv tells a larger story about the evolution and distribution of photography, and our newer, digital methods of distributing photographs and information about them. That Henry Death was both a portrait painter and a photographer points to the challenge that photography posed to traditional art forms during the mid 19th century. Many – Mr Death apparently included – had to apply their existing creative and technical skills (presumably painting) to new technologies (photography), or find a balance whereby old and new practices of representation could co-exist within their business. Unlike a painted portrait or earlier photographic forms such as the daguerreotype, the cdv was affordable and collectable. This in part contributed to its popularity and the expansion and dissemination of photography as a commercial, consumable form during the 1860s. Formulaic and repetitive in its use of similar backdrops, respectable clothing, classical architectural props and elegant furniture, the cdv enabled subjects to appear middle class even if they weren’t. While cdv occasionally contain personal, regional or national references, the structure of their visual content makes one cdv remarkably similar to another.

Where had this wonderfully named photographer lived and applied his trades? London, apparently, where he had two studios: one in Addington Place on Camberwell Road, from 1856-1863 (2), the second at 119 Camberwell Road in Camberwell, from 1863-1887. Further research reveals three studio stamp verso designs were used on his photographs during different times in his career; that he produced hand-painted ambrotypes at one point (most likely during the early 1860s); and that, as of a 2012 online real estate listing, the property at 119 Camberwell Road was still standing, with the floor to ceiling windows necessary for a nineteenth century studio (3). Examples of Death’s portraits are also held in the collection of the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne and the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. In relation to one of Death’s ambrotypes, Powerhouse curator Geoff Barker observes the importance of maintaining the Museum’s collection of ambrotypes, “…as examples [of] early photographic processes in Australia in this period and its links with British immigration.” (4) My recently acquired cdv likely travelled to New Zealand with an immigrant, or was perhaps posted from London, as a memento. We begin, through Death’s portraits, to get a small sense of the distribution networks of the cdv and the flow of photographs from one place to another.

Death’s cdv held by the State Library of Victoria is of a young woman, standing straight-backed, her hands resting on the back of a chair or chaise, regarding us solemnly. (5) Its physical appearance is much the same as my cdv; the same scripted studio details are printed on the verso. Yet interestingly, the library has also applied the index terms “Australia; Henry Death; studio portraits; Victoria; Camberwell Road”. This cdv is part of a large donated collection comprised of 19th century photographs of Australia, and it is possible that, given the absence of anything indicating otherwise, the cdv was presumed on accession to have been produced in Australia: on the back is written in pencil “England? Victoria?” indicating some uncertainty. The studio address on the back of the cdv might be expected to clarify its origin, but, unhelpfully, there is also a Camberwell Road in Melbourne. It is the duplication of the street name, coupled with the relative lack of descriptive information in the photograph that might lead to confusion as to where this particular cdv originated – not clearly being ‘British’ or ‘Australian’ or ‘New Zealand’ in appearance.


It could be argued it’s unnecessary to know the place of production, the ‘origin’ of any particular cdv, in order to understand the greater significance of the cdv as a social and cultural form. It may only be of interest to museum registrars, collection curators, and photo historians such as myself who have a predilection for the minutiae that accompany particular photographs. But smaller histories or case studies can assist in bringing to light larger patterns and their significance. This single cdv, for example, invites us to consider the cultural, economic and technological shifts suggested by “Portrait Painter and Photographer”, as stamped on the verso of Henry Death’s photographs. Knowing the origin of a photograph furthermore gives a clearer indication of how photographs were distributed and used in the nineteenth century. But of most interest is the conflict between the ‘sameness’ of the cdv as a form of cultural production (underscored by the confusion surrounding the State Library of Victoria example) and the individuality of the subject. The cdv has often been described as obscuring the individuality of the subject in favour of a ‘performance’ of middle class-ness. (6) The young man in this cdv may be middle class, or he may just appear to be. But regardless of this, something of his character comes through: he’s sullen, unhappy, resigned to something. This photograph highlights the paradox of the cdv: the delicate negotiation between the ‘sameness’ of this cultural form, and the assertion of the subject’s character. Henry Death’s morose young man reminds us it’s this balance that makes the carte-de-visite such a rich field for further photo historical research and contemplation.

Deidra Sullivan

  1. Roland Barthes, (1981), Camera Lucida, New York, Hill & Wang, 91

  2. http://www.photolondon.org.uk/pages/details.asp?pid=2162
  3. The various studio stamps on the verso of Death’s work are evident on pieces held by the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney (registration no. H5779), the State Library of Victoria (Accession no(s) H2005.34/1040; H2005.34/1040A) and on examples of Death’s portraits posted online by photo history enthusiasts (http://www.antiquedogphotographs.co.uk/2013/08/black-and-tan-terrier-in-camberwell.html or https://www.flickr.com/photos/34370769@N07/8693971503/in/photostream/).  The piece held at the Powerhouse is a hand-painted ambrotype. A listing and description of 119 Camberwell Road is available on the UK real estate site www.zoopla.co.uk/property-history/119-camberwell-road/london 

  4. http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=244349
  5. See http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/search-discover using the search terms ‘Henry Death’

  6. See for example, Michel Frizot, (1998), A New History of Photography, Cologne, Koneman, p.110.


  1. Margaret Smith says

    Interesting reading and two stunning images! I wonder if you have ever come across any portrait photos by William Row Frost in Dunedin in the late 1800s and early 1900s? He was the defacto husband of my great-great-aunt Emily Johnston. (He couldn’t marry her because he had a wife in England.) I have some beautiful portraits of Emily.

  2. Hi Margaret. No, I haven’t, but I see there are some pages online about him and some of his material held in the National Library. Thanks for your suggestion, I’ll have a look at his work.

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