Like his friend Nadar, Etienne Carjat was as much a journalist and graphic caricaturist as a photographer. He brought to his photographic portraits an incisive eye honed through making pencil caricatures for Le Diogène (1856) and Le Gaulois (1857), where the radical simplification of line and gesture became a trademark that transferred to his photographs.
Carjat began to photograph about 1855. Six years later, he opened a Paris studio and began receiving recognition for his portraits: an honorable mention in a London salon (1862), awards in Paris (1863-1864), Berlin (1867), and at the Paris Exposition Universelle (1867). Yet he never devoted himself wholeheartedly to photography; instead, he continued to edit journals and to draw caricatures for the popular press.
Few subjects other than portraiture attracted Carjat. He made hundreds of cartes-de-visite, but his were markedly different than those of Disdéri and other photographers, being as stripped-down and spare as theirs were elaborate. Rather than posed with pillars an swags of drapery, Carjat's subjects were shown against plain backdrops to heighten the effect of gesture and expression, elements frequently lost amid the overstuffed and visually aggressive props of most portraits of the day. The same severity of setting and lighting were applied to even greater effect in Carjat's larger-format pictures. In the best portraits, for example those of Charles Baudelaire and Gioacchino Rossini, the dramatic posture and expression alone convey the portraitist's interpretation. Indeed, Carjat's flair for capturing the spirit of his celebrity subjects frequently equaled or excelled that of his better known contemporary, Nadar, who depended heavily on dramatic side lighting for his effects. The two men are generally regarded as the masters of portrait photography in Europe in the third quarter of the 19th century.