When cabinet cards were introduced into the United States in 1866, photography was everywhere, but many photographers were struggling.
Cabinet Card Portrait (ca. 1867) by UnknownAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Most people thought of photography merely as a tool for documenting appearance; getting a portrait made once or twice over the course of one’s lifetime was plenty.
[Untitled] (ca. 1892) by R. L. McCartneyAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Quite simply, there was not enough business to go around. The challenge was to build a new fad and to get people to come into the studio more often. The cards answered that need.
[Untitled] (ca. 1890) by WilhelmAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Cabinet cards may seem small by today’s standards, but at about the size of mobile phone screens, they provided images that were three times larger than the main photographic formats of the day.
[Woman posing at stairs] (1870s) by TaylorAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Suddenly, facial expressions, clothing, and surroundings were far more visible.
[Fisherman] (1890s) by McDonaldAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Individuals across America took advantage of larger images to show off, share their personalities, and create playful narratives.
[Family meal] (1890s) by McLainAmon Carter Museum of American Art
In short, they began to act out their lives, friendships, and fantasies before the camera.
[Me and myself] (late 1880s) by [L. S.?]PageAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Some of them even played with photographic believability by arranging sittings that showed them two or more times in the same image.
[Sisters sharing photographs] (late 1880s) by Halsted & KehmAmon Carter Museum of American Art
As informality and play became photography’s watchwords, getting photographed became a commonplace act for anyone with a bit of time and a few dollars to spend.
[Man with baby] (1892) by Julius C. StraussAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Family albums became sources of entertainment, and by the turn of the century Americans were primed for the arrival of the snapshot.
Caught in the act
Within twenty years of photography’s 1839 introduction, most towns of any size had at least one professional photography studio. New York City had over one hundred.
[Two girls] (1864) by UnknownAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Still, for many people, getting one’s portrait made was a chore. Poses had to be held for at least 5-10 seconds. Projecting a relaxed smile was out of the question.
Clara Morris (ca. 1876) by Napoleon SaronyAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Enter Napoleon Sarony (1821–1896). An energetic self-promoter, between 1866 and the mid-1890s he built a hugely successful business as photographer to the stars, using the cabinet card as his medium.
[Fanny Davenport] (ca. 1870) by Napoleon SaronyAmon Carter Museum of American Art
With careful attention to lighting and props, and with an understanding of the camera’s ability to fake immediacy, he depicted actors as if they were caught in the moment or in mid-performance.
Helena Luy (1880s) by Benjamin FalkAmon Carter Museum of American Art
His new way of thinking about photography influenced practitioners across the nation, helping transform the act of getting one’s portrait made into an event defined by informality and play.
The great challenge for photographers across the latter half of the 19th century was not to get customers to come in, but rather to get them to come back. Inexpensive and sold by the dozen, cabinet cards instigated that change, solidifying photography’s central place in middle-class life.
Emma Robertson (ca. 1890) by F. L. Blair and RichertAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Most photographers, especially those in small towns, built their clienteles by offering an array of backdrop options along with the opportunity to select among a wide range of personalizing overlays.
Untitled (1890s) by J. L. SkrivsethAmon Carter Museum of American Art
To help build and sustain business, they emblazoned their card fronts with their names and studio locations and filled the card backs with elaborate motifs, often aligning photography with high art.
[Man and sons] (1890s) by DeWitt Clinton PrattAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Cabinet cards taught people that getting your portrait made could be fun, and getting it made repeatedly could open new doorways to self-expression.
Sharing life: family and friends
Americans collected and shared photographs of family and friends from early on, but cabinet cards transformed that activity in dramatic ways.
[Baby] (1890s) by W. A. WilcoxonAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Where earlier photographs were usually created for the purpose of showcasing appearance and stature, cabinet cards celebrated moments in time.
Willie Poten (1880s) by Samuel LoganAmon Carter Museum of American Art
The format helped Americans photographically celebrate every stage of life, from infancy to death, often within a framework of informality. They led some sitters to play with pose, props, and settings.
[Two boys with deer] (1880s) by UnknownAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Through cabinet cards, Americans proclaimed their achievements, friendships, and hobbies, and they celebrated family and even added humor to their self-depictions.
[Photographer with his chemicals] (1880s) by P. H. McAteeAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Though roll film was invented in 1888, most people continued to engage professional photographers to make their portraits.
The Renowned Gallagher Family (1880s) by W. R. ArnoldAmon Carter Museum of American Art
By transforming people’s lives into visual diaries, whether for albums or loose arrays, cabinet cards helped pave the way for the snapshot.
Just like Napoleon Sarony’s actors pretending they were in the midst of a play, by the 1880s sitters across the United States were coming to photography studios to perform for the camera.
[Man dressing] (1890s) by Edward ThomasAmon Carter Museum of American Art
They embedded themselves in exotic settings, pretended that they were caught dressing to go out, joked around with each other, and even openly challenged photography’s inherent believability by interacting with themselves as if they had magically multiplied.
[Chess against myself] (1880s) by UnknownAmon Carter Museum of American Art
It was all a game of course. That photographs are read first as direct and truthful depictions of whatever is before the lens only made the activity even more enjoyable.
[Inspecting a negative] (late 1880s) by James H. ReynoldsAmon Carter Museum of American Art
Then, in 1900, Eastman Kodak Company introduced its $1 Brownie camera. Immediately, the ease of photographing shifted from studios into the hands of almost anyone.
[From behind] (1890s) by William D. Jackson Sr.Amon Carter Museum of American Art
With that change, cabinet cards fell out of fashion, but the outlook of comfortable relaxation instigated by the cabinet card continued from early personal photos to social media today.
See Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography at the Carter August 18–November 1, 2020.
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.