“Do you recognize anyone?”
A visitor chuckled at her own joke, nostalgic in the midst of the dozens of 20th century snapshots in “Going Viral: Photography, Performance, and the Everyday.” Mounted in conjunction with “Making, Not Taking: Portrait Photography in the 19th Century” for the spring reopening of the Davis Museum, both exhibits are curated by Carrie Cushman, Linda Wyatt Gruber ’66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography and will be on view until June 7.
Over 100 anonymous snapshots, selected from a much larger gift from Peter J. Cohen, are organized into thematic displays that highlight common trends in 20th century photography. The accompanying explanations for depicted phenomena such as fake fighting and even pyromania provide brief histories of wide-ranging social trends and demonstrate common but sometimes unexpected uses of photography in the everyday. The exhibit also showcases an original Kodak camera and early manuals, and Kodak’s new Printomatic allows visitors to shoot and print their own snapshots in the gallery to be pasted into an album or posted online.
This exhibition of early 20th-century American snapshots — which spread not unlike digital media today — allows us to consider our changing relationship with photography. The ability to take and share photographs allows us to frame our lives in new ways, and many types of these everyday images, at different times, have become “socially infectious” or universal.
The earliest forms of photography, on the other hand, were processes that required much more time, labor and expense. “Making, Not Taking: Portrait Photography in the 19th Century” explores the materiality and the process of photography in its nascent stages. A sample of the Davis’s collection of daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, cartes de visite, cabinet cards and tintypes demonstrates the rapid development of early photographic processes, materials and framing. A rapidly spreading phenomenon, the ethnographic function of studio photography around the world is also on display. With loans from Peter and Barbara Schultz, the exhibition recreates a historic photography studio with an original backdrop, posing props and furniture — including a head clamp that ensured subjects’ stillness, necessitated by long exposure times — and all the materials needed to create a daguerreotype.
The goal, notes curator Carrie Cushman, is to “get people thinking about what a process this was; that the portrait was something that was made not just by the camera operator but also by a whole host of people working in a factory setting, and also you as the customer, making choices about how to present yourself.” While the snapshots in the “Viral” exhibit largely speak for themselves, a didactic textual narrative allows visitors to better understand the choices made in early photography, from props and scenery to cases and albums; with so many developing processes, subjects and their photographers also made more choices about methods.
The 19th century exhibit does a phenomenal job outlining the materials and forms of early photography, made real and important by dozens of physical images and photographic tools. Without the same caliber of historical support, the role of “Going Viral” is harder to discern than that of “Making, not Taking.” The latter is so clearly disconnected from our modern experience, and while the former may resonate with many visitors, it might be harder for students or younger visitors to appreciate a phenomenon both more different and more similar to our own experience than early photography. However, the snapshots illustrate people’s increasing ability to construct images of self — early portraiture served the elite, and though the daguerreotype expanded the demographics of photographers and subjects alike, photography has only become more accessible and malleable since.
Though there is a physical separation between the two exhibits, they subtly nod to one another. During the 1860s, cartes de visite were cheap to produce because eight images fit on a single negative plate. This was the first time the majority of people could have a portrait taken inexpensively, and cartes de visite were exchanged, framed and compiled into albums. They were produced and collected with such enthusiasm that the term ‘Cartomania’ was coined to describe their popularity, much like the notion of virality in the adjacent exhibit.
Many of us take photos every day, and we see others’ just as often. The Davis offers an opportunity to take a moment to think about how the medium and its subjects have changed over the past two centuries, especially as it has grown to represent more experiences than one could have expected in 1839, allowing fellow visitors to the Davis to smile and exclaim, “I took photos like that!”