Throughout the nineteenth century, the rapidly developing technology of photography revolutionized popular media and its consumption. Once complicated, clunky, and expensive, by 1900, when Kodak introduced the popular and much more affordable Box Brownie camera, photography had become a part of everyday life, influencing how people saw themselves and the world, literally and figuratively. But just before the invention of the Brownie camera, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the cabinet card was ubiquitous.
Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography offers the first-ever in-depth examination of the photographic phenomenon of cabinet cards. Cabinet cards were America’s main format for photographic portraiture through the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Inexpensive and sold by the dozen, they transformed getting one’s portrait made from a formal event taken up once or twice in a lifetime into a commonplace practice shared with family and friends.
Of the many millions of cabinet cards produced during their period of proliferation (1880s-1910s), only a small percentage, perhaps as low as 3%, would ever fit the performative type illustrated in this posting. Most were of the “solemn records of likeness and stature type”, typically full-length, half-length or a head and shoulders portrait, usually of a single person, sometimes a couple or family. Even then, the performative type of cabinet card would have a limited distribution, either within the family or commercially.
The four sections of the exhibition – Caught in the Act (actors, orators and other public figures); The Trade (commercial advertising); Sharing Life: Family and Friends (family albums); and Acting Out (people at play; reality and truth) – are logical partitions of these certain types of cabinet card. But what interests me more are the psychological aspects of having ones photograph taken. Why is the person’s photograph being taken, at whose direction (the photographers, the sitters)… who is posing the individual, what do they intend to convey through the image, who decides what that message is and, of course, how does the viewer decipher the message. “The interpretation of a person’s acting out and an observer’s response varies considerably, with context and subject usually setting audience expectations.”
Taking in the view, ca. 1880. (Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas)
George Moore and Fred Howe, ca. 1890s. (Robert E. Jackson Collection)
Skater, ca. 1880s. (Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas)
Getting the cleaver, ca. 1880s. (Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas)
Getting the saw, ca. 1880s. (Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas)