Decorative versos of visiting cards

The term ‘verso’ has Latin origin (folio verso) and is used to describe the back of a visiting card. The heyday of the visiting card in photography was between 1852 and 1919, and these cards were usually portraits, the verso of which was discovered very early by photographers as an advertising medium. On the back of the cards, the photographers not only gave the address of their studios but also their awards, accompanied by artistic graphics. In our current selection, these ornate versos, and with them the photographers' careers come to life.

The visiting cards are interesting not only for their backs, but also for the way they were made. Typically, 8-10 layers of thin paper were glued together with water-soluble glue, then a unique-design backing was printed on the back and the photograph was placed on the front. Why was this necessary? To preserve the image, because if it was not exposed to moisture it kept its shape for decades, much to the delight of collectors.

Although business cards already existed, the visiting card was much more popular. The themes of the images were also rather varied. There were photos of people holding umbrellas, lifting hats, wearing fancy dresses or uniforms. The figures in the photographs stood or sat in front of the camera certainly in their best clothes, because the way future owners looked, how the photo reflected their social status or influence was a major factor.

From a master of children's photography to a desperate counterfeiter


Photographers often displayed not only their exact address but also a snapshot of their studio. Why was this necessary? Because of the competition. All these pieces of information were intended to let the prospective customer know which photographer was working where and under what conditions. Artists who could afford to have their own studios did not spare the money for representation. Such was the case with photographer Manó Mai.

Manó Mai (1855-1917), imperial and royal court photographer, was one of the most renowned representatives of children's photography in Hungary. He had his own studio, now the Mai Manó House, at 20 Nagymező Street. The eight-storey building was commissioned by the photographer and completed in 1894. His life, work and the history of the studio house he built have been widely written about. The first article about the studio house was published in April 1895, describing the studio the following way:

"The rooms are arranged for electric lighting, so that the success of the photograph does not depend on the mercy of the weather. In addition to the photographic rooms, there is also a painting studio, in which excellent artists are engaged in painting portraits. Mano Mai has been known for years as one of the most skilful photographers in the capital. It was especially the photographs of children that always won the public' liking and meant a great success. However, he considered his strength insufficient to run such a large institute alone, and therefore took Mr. Szigeti as partner, who is also one of Hungary's most skilful photographers, and whose contribution will only help the institute to flourish."

In the verso of his photos, after 1894, his self-built studio house was never missing, as was the evocative motto: "Near Andrássy Road".


Mór Erdélyi (1866-1934) was an authority among photographers, not only as one of the first Hungarian practitioners of photojournalism and sports photography, but also as one of the first representatives of Hungarian reportage and documentary photography, following his documentary series. He was the first artist to prove that photography could also be used as a technique for educational purposes. His images of historical, ethnographic and geographical landmarks were also used in education by composing a series of slides for elementary and rural schools. In 1891, Erdélyi opened his own studio in the house on the corner of Erzsébet Square and Sas Street (18 Erzsébet Square).

Erdélyi was a successful and sought-after portrait photographer from the very beginning, as politicians, aristocrats and prominent scientists visited his studio. Due to the large number of commissions he received, he wanted to open a new studio in the house then under construction (1895-96) on the corner of Kossuth Lajos and Újvilág (later Semmelweis) Streets, the address of which is also in the verso in the gallery.

163680.jpgThe photographic adventures of István Goszleth (1850-1913) began in 1863, when he was fourteen years old and went to the studio of the photographer Albert Doctor (1818-1888) in Kristóf Square. Ferenc Kozmata was still working in Arad at the time, and after moving to Pest he became a partner of Doctor Albert, and in 1868 the Doctor and Kozmata Company was founded. They improved the existing workshop and Goszleth became their first assistant, but in addition to him, they employed twenty other people. Goszleth's career started soaring; in 1883, he set up his own shop in the city centre, not far from the Rózsavölgyi music shop and Jakab Rothberger's upmarket clothes shop in Kristóf Square. He excelled in theatre photography, capturing the leading actors and actresses of the time. His well-known guests included Kornelia Prielle, Mari Jászai, and Emilia Márkus. Like other artists, he portrayed the artists in their most expressive poses in his studio instead of the theatre. His studio, run by him and his son Gyula since 1895, was a guarantee of quality and reliability. 

163724.jpgThe story of Mrs Zsigmond Bienenfeld's photographic business is also interesting. After her husband's death (1904), she continued to run the ferrotype studio in Városliget. In 1905, she was licensed to show cinematography, and when the cinema became less profitable due to competition, Mrs Bienenfeld started to run a Lilliputian theatre, but she went on with photography as well. 

164026.jpgThe life of Mór Kováts (1848-1901) was also very eventful. In 1890, he opened his own studio at 37 Külső-Stáció Street in Budapest. Two years later the address changed to 107 Baross Street, although he did not move; only the street was renamed and renumbered. Part of his business signs read "Kováts & Partner": his business partner was his wife Paulina Weimann. In 1900, the family moved to Pécs, to the Csigó House on Jókai Square, where they intended to establish a large-scale photographic studio and a zincographic reproduction facility (making plates, zincographs). In reality, however, they would have been engaged in quite a different kind of activity. The police raided the desperate family, and although the banknotes were thrown into the fire, the police found 1,000 counterfeit ten-forint notes in the ashes of the fireplace, and the opening of the photographic studio went up in smoke.

Translated by Zita Aknai


Janus Pannonius Múzeum Évkönyve 24. (1979) (Pécs, 1980)

Dömötör Zoltán: Korok, képek, kamerák, Miskolci Városi Könyvtár, Miskolc, 2011.


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