Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography, 1870–1900

Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography, 1870–1900
Fri, 07/30/2021 – 10:56

This exhibition was organized by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

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All exhibitions at LACMA are underwritten by the LACMA Exhibition Fund. Major annual support is provided by Meredith and David Kaplan, with generous annual funding from Terry and Lionel Bell, Kevin J. Chen, Louise and Brad Edgerton, Edgerton Foundation, Emily and Teddy Greenspan, Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross, Mary and Daniel James, David Lloyd and Kimberly Steward, Kelsey Lee Offield, Mr. and Mrs. Anthony and Lee Shaw, Lenore and Richard Wayne, Marietta Wu and Thomas Yamamoto, and The Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation.


When cabinet cards were introduced in the United States in 1866, they solved a problem. Photography had become commonplace in visual culture, but photographers were struggling to generate business: most people thought of the medium merely as a tool for documenting appearance, and had only one or two portraits made over the course of their lifetimes. The challenge was to build a new fad to encourage people to visit portrait studios more often. Cabinet cards were the answer: Americans could have these inexpensive portraits made to mark major milestones, such as births, marriages, and deaths, and also to document more ordinary moments, from professional achievements to leisure activities.

Cabinet cards may seem small by today’s standards, but at about the size of mobile phone screens, they were three times larger than the prevailing format, the carte de visite. Suddenly, sitters’ facial expressions, clothing, and surroundings were far more visible. Though most people still simply positioned themselves before the camera, some took advantage of the additional space the cards afforded to show off, express their personalities, and create playful narratives. Some even experimented with photographic believability, appearing in “trick” compositions that replicated a sitter two or more times in a single image.

As people became comfortable with photography, they were more willing to spend a few dollars on portrayals of themselves in various guises and attitudes. Family albums were sources of entertainment, and by the turn of the century Americans were primed for the arrival of the snapshot.

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