Galleries of Friendship and Fame: A History of Nineteenth-Century American Photograph Albums by Elizabeth Siegel, Yale University Press, 2010
Reviewed by Kenneth Tanaka
It seems self-evident that photography is enjoying an unprecedented level of social currency. Today's amalgamation of digital photography with public communication technologies is facilitating an unprecedented volume of photo traffic (and visual noise). Everyone seems able and ready to exchange photographs at the slightest provocation.
So you might be surprised to learn that today's slightly narcissistic and self-promotional photo craze isn’t entirely unprecedented. It turns out that your great-great-grand-pappy might have been a bit of a photo hound, too.
In Galleries of Friendship and Fame: A History of Nineteenth-Century American Photo Albums, Elizabeth Siegel*, associate curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, traces an early American photo craze that rivaled and may have even excelled today's in many ways.
The genesis of this phenomenon was a French patent filed by André Adolphe-Eugène Disdèri in 1854 for the carte-de-visite (the visiting card). This was a small, hand-holdable photographic portrait mounted on a card. Disdèri’s ingenuity underlying the patent was to create a camera with four lenses and a plate mechanism that could be easily and accurately shifted, thus allowing up to eight nearly identical exposures to be made quickly in a single sitting. (Or eight different images to be quickly shot on one plate by keeping three lenses covered during exposure.) One sitting, eight exposures, one plate to develop, voilà!
These little photo portraits quickly became very popular as calling cards among Europe’s upper classes. Cartes-de-visites became souvenirs of personal popularity and social connection. Having the "right" cartes symbolized that you were "in" with the right crowd.
But the carte-de-visite never gained much popularity as a visiting card in America. Instead, by the 1860s it had ignited an arguably far more significant social movement toward using small, relatively cheap photos as personal and family mementos. This ultimately gave rise to the production of standardized, mass-produced albums to hold the cartes. Ultimately, this became the birth of photography's massive snapshot and photo album market which lives on to this day, albeit in formats far different than anyone in the late 19th century could have imagined.
Galleries of Friendship and Fame ostensibly traces the origins and development of the 19th century photo album in America. But along the way the author touches on many concurrent social, historic, and technological topics that contributed to its popularity. For example, the American Civil War provided an early boost to the personal/family photographic album market for obvious reasons.
Galleries of Friendship and Fame is a fine work of historical scholarship, as it originated as Ms. Siegel’s doctoral thesis. But it's also an entertaining read for anyone interested in the origins of popular photography. The book is beautifully designed and generously illustrated with fascinating photos and hard-to-find illustrations. It doesn't look or read like a thesis.
(Note: If you're looking for a less self-indulgent, and more historically significant reason to enjoy the book, Elizabeth just informed me that this December marks the 150th anniversary of photograph albums being advertised in America.)
*In the spirit of full disclosure I note that Elizabeth Siegel is a friend.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Neil the Wheel: "'Galleries of Friendship' sounds like an early Facebook."
Ken replies: Neil: That's exactly what the earliest photo albums were. Indeed, here's a quote from a (not yet published) NYT op-ed piece by Liz Siegel:
And now we seem to be at another threshold, when a new kind of technology is shaping the way we record our memories and present ourselves to others. In virtual communities we can collect friends, link to the famous, and post 'albums' of images that reveal our edited personal lives, forging connections across a variety of social groups. The origins of this phenomenon—the mediated representation of people in a technological culture—can be found in nineteenth-century photograph albums, the very first face books.
Nuthin' new when it comes to human nature, eh?