Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 21, 2011
Elizabeth Siegel Galleries of Friendship and Fame: A History of Nineteenth-Century American Photograph Albums New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 216 pp.; 49 b/w ills. Paper $50.00 (9780300154061)

Thumbnail

The title of Elizabeth Siegel’s Galleries of Friendship and Fame: A History of Nineteenth-Century American Photograph Albums derives from an unsigned article, “Photomania,” published in Harper’s Weekly (February 16, 1861), and cited by Siegel as evidence of the popular appeal of the carte de visite album in the United States. As the article crowed, the album sold by savvy “makers of fancy goods” was allowing collectors of cartes de visite “to create their own ‘gallery of friendship and fame.’” The mania for albums was widespread, “making them ‘quite universal, and as fast as they are brought to us are taken up with enthusiasm’” (79–80). Such unbridled enthusiasm for American salesmanship, mass-consumerism, and imitative behaviour pervades Siegel’s study of the phenomenon, which is canvassed through readings of photographic trade journals, advertisements directed at sales agents, mail-order catalogues, illustrated newspapers, as well as articles and cartoons in popular magazines. This is a story of consumer appetite, its creation by those who would profit from it directly through merchandising, and its recognition by those who would benefit indirectly as purveyors of social commentary, gentle satire, and scholarly investigation.

Galleries of Friendship and Fame is based on Siegel’s doctoral dissertation (University of Chicago, 2003). Her updating of this study is difficult to evaluate, as there is no bibliography. Further, the book’s own endnotes undermine Siegel’s contention that photographic albums have been victims of systematic scholarly neglect. On the contrary, they have been part of an enormous shift in historiographical and theoretical activity. The critical perspectives of Walter Benjamin, Gisèle Freund, and Siegfried Kracauer, in the first wave, and André Bazin, Roland Barthes, John Berger, Pierre Bourdieu, and Susan Sontag, in the second, transformed the way we think about the album, its particular contents, and cultural work. What we now call the “archival turn” in photographic studies has also been active for decades; to cite just one example, the Documentary Photography Archive in Manchester began to rescue family albums in 1975. These globally circulated writings and many local projects made both established and emergent researchers receptive to histories of vernacular and commercial photography as offered by Geoffrey Batchen, John Berger, Patrizia Di Bello, Michel Frizot, Anne-Marie Garat, Andrea Kunard, Martha Langford, Elizabeth Anne McCauley, Marilyn Motz, Douglas Nickel, Timm Starl, Val Williams, Liz Wells, and the chronically neglected Heinz K. Henisch and Bridget A. Henisch, The Photographic Experience, 1839–1914: Images and Attitudes (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1994). While a new book on photographic albums is always welcome, the time for claims of primacy is long past; what is needed is discursive engagement with these objects and their interpreters.

Siegel’s focus is cartomania, its promotion and standardization. She writes: “Far from being a private and personal family document, the photograph album was a product of industrial capitalism, guided by the commerce of photography. . . . The conventions that took hold in purchasing, arranging, and displaying albums—the standards, that is, of picturing the family—can fully be understood by addressing this peculiar intersection of personal and commercial concerns” (9). Evidence of those concerns can be amusing. In the American trade journal The Photographer’s Friend (1872), for example, she finds a sketch of two archetypal compilers, “Miss Domestic,” whose album contains fading family portraits, and “Miss Enterprise,” compiler of “an edifying collection of national notables and views” (70). The distinction between private and public realms is crucial to Siegel’s framework, as she will argue that the album “blurs the borders,” just as the parlor’s appointments, manufactured rather than crafted, are increasingly seen to do (71). But this being the case, what was so “peculiar” about the album? Should it be taken seriously, as a shifter of mentalities, or taken lightly, as a symptom of conformity already—to make a bad pun—in the cards? In either case, should we not expect some critical analysis of this commercial craze and its manipulation of the U.S. population?

Finding little about albums “in diaries, letters, or novels,” Siegel has not fully exploited the literature that she cites (4). Robert Taft’s social history Photography and the American Scene, first published in 1938 (New York: Dover, 1964), points Siegel in the direction of Covered Wagon Days: A Journey Across the Plains in the Sixties, and Pioneer Days in the Northwest: From the Private Journals of Albert Jerome Dickson (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, 1929). For Taft, it is enough to know that in a pioneer cabin of 1864, the family Bible and photograph album were placed together on a flour barrel re-purposed as a parlor center table. Taft speculates that the album contains “images of those most loved but now far distant: Father—Mother—Aunt Sue—Sister Mary, and a host of others” (Taft, 138). Siegel echoes Taft: the “newer photograph album was the embodiment of family and home” (120). But Dickson’s diaries are silent on the contents of this album; they paint a different picture of nineteenth-century family life. A boy of thirteen, Dickson was the indentured servant of a couple, the Ridgleys, who were migrating from Wisconsin, where they had kept a tavern, to Montana. The Bible and album are indeed in the covered wagon, with “a box of seashells, a vase of feather flowers, a small mirror and a colored print or two” (Dickson, 41, 192). Dickson’s diary emphasizes cleanliness and feminine touches; the Bible and album have white lace covers, matching the cabin curtains, while the material culture of these pioneers speaks to civilized practices and settings. By parroting Taft’s assumptions, Siegel’s standardized notions of “family and home” are left undisturbed.

Seigel’s penultimate chapter, “Albums in the Parlor,” considers their contents and organization. Her emphasis shifts from the commercial world to imagined owners whose albums are supposed to reflect their personalities and objectives: “who they thought they were or how they wanted to be seen” (126). Such statements exude confidence in the album as an instrument of self-promotion, whether by kinship, affiliation, or modishness. The photographic album that replaces the family Bible “marks a particularly modern shift from an oral and textual tradition to a visible one” (122). And yet, the album in the parlor is a motor of conversation and storytelling (131–34). At that point, the rigidity of the carte de visite album is eschewed in favor of the more creative scrapbook. This activity has already been surveyed by Siegel in her exhibition catalogue Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2009 [click here for review]). The antecedents to this form, according to Siegel, are the pre-photographic commonplace book as well as other feminine pastimes: drawing and painting, pressing flowers, writing or transcribing poetry. This culture of sentiment, “a way of experiencing the past and the present, particularly at a moment of change exemplified by westward expansion and civil war—pervaded parlor life” (146). Summoning Benedict Anderson, Siegel turns the self-presentation and consumption of carte de visite albums into the glue of nationhood, and entering the mind of a nineteenth-century American, writes: “If I am looking at a photograph of Lincoln in my album, might someone else be too?” (153)

Andrea L. Volpe already answered that question in “Collecting the Nation: Visions of Nationalism in Two Civil War-Era Photograph Albums,” a chapter of Leah Dilworth’s Acts of Possession: Collecting in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003). Volpe’s unpublished dissertation, “Cheap Pictures: Cartes de Visite and Visual Culture in the United States, 1859–1877,” is frequently cited by Siegel, but this published essay is not. In her thoughtful analysis of the cultural work of two albums, Volpe stresses their provision of “visual discussion—a contest of meaning” (91). “Domestic” in these albums, at this particular moment in history, refers not to a mousy Miss in a parlor, but to “domestic violence” as encapsulated in images of a nation bent on fratricide, then, in a heartbeat and with equal enterprise, bent on healing. Attending to the arrangement of the portraits in the first album and the combination of portraiture and battle views in the second, Volpe develops Anderson’s nuanced view of national consciousness as the weaving of remembering and forgetting. An album is not simply an instrument of record, or an exemplar of faddish modernity, but “a metaphor for the project of collective memory itself, as Americans embraced both the documentary and sentimental qualities of photography to selectively remember the heroism of war and to forget its traumas” (109). Siegel cites Volpe’s thesis to underscore the levelling effect of compilation—the phenomenon of generals and civilians sharing the same page—then moves quickly to restore the good humor of her book, ending her discussion with a rousing Civil War-era song (150).

In Siegel’s last chapter, the carte de visite becomes a victim of its own success: there is hardly anyone who has not been photographed. American visual culture in the later nineteenth century was offering other diversions in the form of halftone reproductions, postcards, and snapshots. Siegel finds the family album beginning to splinter into individual members’ albums, though she dutifully cites French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s mid-sixties comparison of the family album to the “faithfully visited gravestone,” ultimately ascribing the snapshot album “a dual function: to record an individualized present and a communal past” (166).

This dichotomy paves the way for Siegel’s puzzling conclusion. In the first half of her book, she went to great lengths to present the carte de visite album and its users as constructions of the industry—those wranglers of the American mind. She adds, “when self-presentation is so technologically mediated, it is all the more important that we understand the conventions, functions, and meanings of albums,” and for this we must go back to the album’s beginnings (167). But Siegel is already rewriting that story. Now “it is clear that these collections were outlets for real concerns about the world . . . means for Americans to assimilate changing definitions of family, home, and nation, and to comprehend the new features of modernity” (167). So which is it? Were these “Galleries of Friendship and Fame” the trading floors of false consciousness or do they represent “real concerns,” collective growth, and knowledge? If the answer is “both,” as it seems to be, we need more critical analysis of the kind offered by Volpe and a great deal more evidence of compilers’ resistance to the culture of conformity.

Martha Langford
Associate Professor, Department of Art History; Research Chair and Director, Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art, Concordia University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.