“Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography” opens at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art (the Carter) in August. The exhibition offers the first in-depth examination of Cabinet Cards, a 19th-century photographic phenomenon. Following an Aug. 14-16 preview for members, the exhibition will be on view Aug. 18 through Nov. 1.
Cabinet cards coaxed Americans into thinking about portraiture as an informal act. This forged the way for snapshots and social media, finally leading to our contemporary “selfie” culture. The Carter exhibition includes hundreds of photographs from collections around the country and their own extensive collection.
“Acting Out exemplifies the Carter’s commitment to organizing exhibitions rooted in groundbreaking scholarship, a core tenet of our curatorial philosophy,” said Andrew J. Walker, Executive Director. “This exhibition harnesses the resources of our vast photography collection and archive to show visitors the contemporary relevance of the medium’s pre-modern history.”
Acting Out Has Four Sections
(1) Caught in the Act: Actors, orators, and other public figures were among the first to embrace cabinet cards. This section examines creative innovations employed by New York photographer Napoleon Sarony and others. These innovations built enthusiasm for a new kind of portraits with a relaxed sense of immediacy.
(2) The Trade: This section looks at entertaining and evocative ways photographers used to overcome low prices and fierce competition. Their creative solutions gave rise to the ubiquity of cabinet cards across America by the 1880s.
(3) Sharing Life: Family and Friends: Over the last quarter of the 19th century, cabinet cards were often favored ways of recording and celebrating family life. This evocative section reveals how cabinet cards established a model for family albums.
(4) Acting Out: If portraiture was the subject of cabinet cards, play was just as important. This section examines Americans’ acceptance of the camera as a tool for shared amusement as they toyed with photography’s pretense of reality and truth.
Playful Approach to Photography
“In our current moment of ‘selfie’ culture and social media-centered interaction, understanding the history of self-presentation and portraiture is more prescient than ever,” said John Rohrbach, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Carter. “This exhibition reveals how 19th-century Americans approached photography far more playfully than ever before.”
By the time Eastman Kodak introduced its new affordable Brownie camera in 1900, cabinet cards had primed Americans to photograph every aspect of their lives. Though produced over 100 years ago, cabinet cards have a familiarity and a levity that resonates with our experience of photography today.
“Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography” was organized by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. The exhibition is supported in part by the Alice L. Walton Foundation Temporary Exhibitions Endowment. It is accompanied by a 232-page catalogue co-published with the University of California Press, Berkeley. For more information, please visit cartermuseum.org.