Carlo Ponti was born in Sagno, a village in the Canton Ticino district of Switzerland circa 1823. Details of his childhood and parentage are nonexistent, and official accounts of his life invariably begin with his relocation to Paris as a young adult. He worked for the Cauchoix photography studio for a few years before permanently settling in Venice, where he opened a small optician business. His optical products, for which Mr. Ponti shrewdly retained exclusive rights, quickly gained a reputation for their high quality. In addition to his astronomical instruments, he also constructed award-winning panoramic view lenses and several types of photographic equipment.
In 1854, Mr. Ponti officially embarked upon his second career as a photographer, specializing in architectural photography, for which his masterful lighting techniques were particularly well-suited. In his famous photograph of the Canova in the Frari monument, he establishes dramatic effect by capturing the image at an acute angle, which also emphasized the shadows and light on the sculptures and the ethereal swirls on the marbled tomb. By 1855, Mr. Ponti had amassed a collection of 160 photographs of Venetian architecture, which were later published in a historical compilation. He expanded his photographic repertoire to include portraits of urban life, in which the various styles of dress clearly delineated the social class disparity of the period. Mr. Ponti embarked upon successful collaborations with celebrated Venetian photographers Domenico Bresolin, Antonnio Fortunato Perini, and most notoriously, Carlo Naya. Because Mr. Ponti published Mr. Naya's photographic prints and used his own trademark on them, there was considerable confusion regarding ownership.
In 1860, Mr. Ponti developed a large-format photograph viewer known as the alethoscope (or aletoscopio), and two years' later, he received the sole rights to his invention and began selling it. Historians attribute this landmark invention as a departure from the stationary image that would later evolve into cinema. This led to the invention of the larger megalethoscope (or megaletoscopio) that could create special visual effects through the management of reflecting light. Meanwhile, Mr. Ponti and Mr. Naya collaborated on a photo album of landscape views entitled Vendute di Venezia, which was published in 1866. This same year, Mr. Ponti was named official royal photographer for Victor Emmanuel II, and expanded his business internationally to include branches in London, Paris, Berlin, Montreal, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Meanwhile, Meanwhile, his partner Mr. Naya began manufacturing and selling atheloscopes, which Mr. Ponti maintained was copyright infringement. The photographers entered a protracted litigation after ending their partnership in 1868. Mr. Ponti was never able to secure sole rights to his invention, and therefore released his own less successful variations.
Ironically, the aging photographer began losing his eyesight, but continued his experiments until overtaken by blindness. Carlo Ponti died in his adopted hometown of Venice on November 16, 1893. His megalethoscope and early albumen prints are presently stored at the Musee Suisse de l'Appareil Photographique in Vevey, Switzerland. Many of his photographs are currently being exhibited in private collections and publicly in major museums throughout the world, including the J. Paul Getty Museum's Getty Villa in Malibu, California.
2002 Colonialist Photography: Imag(in)ing Race and Place (New York: Routledge), p. 117.
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 247, 1144-1146.
2002 Venice: Fragile City, 1797-1997 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), pp. 128-129.
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