Explorer as Hero

In the nineteenth century, explorers pushed further into areas previously unknown to their supporters and audiences. Their images, too, began to crop up in new places. The carte-de-visite originated in the 1850s as a means of representing one’s self to one’s intimates and acquaintances: a sturdy and unprecious portrait that could serve equally as a remembrance, calling card, or promotional tool. It was soon put to use by politicians and heads of state, artists and entertainers, social reformers, explorers, and other public figures for self-promotion and fundraising. Cartes-de-visite advanced explorers’ celebrity, but they also indicate the extent of that celebrity to begin with.

Western audiences were riveted by African and Arctic exploration in particular, consuming newspaper and journal articles, books, and lantern slides that described these expeditions. Trade cards and advertisements that featured explorers’ drawn likenesses, in addition to carefully composed, mass-produced photographic portraits, heightened their fame and helped ensure its longevity.

Typically, explorers’ exploits were related as adventure stories. Texts and images described great danger and hardship, heroic bravery and determination. Scurvy and death could not stop Sir George Nares and his ships Alert and Discovery from reaching an unprecedented northern latitude; “increasing heat,” “hostile bushmen,” and “the ravishing of lions” could not keep James Chapman from his quest to reach the Zambezi River delta, or from attempting to photograph along the way. This depiction of explorer-as-hero became a key feature of travelogues and especially newspapers that traded in the new, commercially motivated mode of sensationalist journalism.

Previous Section | Next Section