Whimsy and Personality in Early American Photography

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Whimsy and Personality in Early American Photography

LOS ANGELES — What is so fascinating about staring at the faces of people we will never know? A new exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) provides a wide and whimsical range: families in moments of joy and sorrow, groups of friends goofing around, and the timeless cuteness of children and pets. Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography, 1870-1900 reveals both the significance and fun of an early photographic format in the US, providing insights into the medium’s near-endless possibilities for empathy, entertainment, and marketing — and the ways we use it to connect.

About the size of a smartphone screen, cabinet cards were part of a culture of portrait exchange, not unlike sharing snapshots in the 20th century or selfies today. In an interview with Hyperallergic, curator Britt Salvesen said she chose the “more exceptional, elaborate, and playful examples” to illuminate both the growing role of photography in everyday life and how photographers carved out their careers by finding inventive ways to showcase customers’ personalities. The show is organized into four sections: “Caught in the Act,” featuring collectible portraits of star actors that are chiefly notable now for their renowned photographer, Napoleon Sarony; “The Trade,” focusing on how photographers established their studios and brands; “Sharing Life,” with images of people at all stages of it; and “Acting Out,” which includes the silliest and most entertaining examples in the show, from illusionistic portraits to people creating dramatic scenes in drag.

Installation view, Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)

Most compelling are the images of everyday lives, like the series of Caroline Hughes Hannum, who was photographed each year from age nine to 14. The annual images provide a poignant time-lapse view of her transition from childhood to early adolescence. Cabinet cards commemorated every kind of life event — the show also includes a few examples of death portraits, a common convention at the time. The inventive mischief of group photos still resonates too, even if poses today tend to differ from friends’ heads popping out from rips in a roll of paper or between the rungs of a ladder. Each image is intensely individual. But, brought together, they reveal the shared moments in important events and relationships, and how we commemorate them, in any given life.

As a cheaper format, cabinet cards made photography more widely accessible and enabled more experimentation and representation. While the show includes excellent examples of technical and stylistic experiments, it’s hard to escape the fact that the faces depicted are predominantly white. An associated Zoom talk explores the diversity of portraiture in California at the turn of the century, but it would be ideal to see this more fully reflected on the walls as well, perhaps by drawing on resources beyond the private collection that provided most of the loans for the show.

Unknown photographer, “Painter” (1890s), albumen silver print (William L. Schaeffer Collection, photo courtesy the Amon Carter Museum of American Art)

In this period, photographers worked hard to establish their reputations as artists in a competitive market that still considered photography a mechanistic medium. Photographers used cabinet cards’ versos and overlays to advertise their services in flourishing script and imagery, as the cards’ circulation guaranteed further exposure. Itinerant photographers traveled around the country, offering their services in small towns. Still, the career was often a side hustle, as in the case of “Dr. A. Lane, Photographer and Dentist.” The show’s emphasis on the surrounding context of the images, including versos, overlays, and scrapbooks, nicely underscores the active and varied use of cabinet cards and the fact that they existed in myriad personal and advertising contexts — not just isolated within individual frames.

The exhibit also features a mock studio setup: a mannequin in period dress is posed in front of an original backdrop, bringing to life what making a cabinet card might have entailed (and prefiguring an influencer staring off into the middle distance in front of a mural wall). Perhaps because the painted backdrops are obviously fake, the people in cabinet cards often look intensely real: their foibles, hobbies, relationships, and idiosyncrasies come alive amidst the trickery. Acting Out is a timely reminder of what it means to share portraits of our lives, and what it means to leave behind evidence that we, too, were here.

Installation view, Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)

Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography, 1870-1900 continues at LACMA through November 7. The exhibition is curated by Britt Salvesen and was organized by John Rohrbach of the Amon Carter Museum.

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