Act Out Your Photographic Fantasies: LACMA’s “Acting Out” Cabinet Card Show

It is fabulous. I like to “act”. (Just ask my family.) There is now an entire exhibit dedicated to this proposal at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a.k.a LACMA. It illustrates one of the few ways people in the late 19th century could indulge their little dramatic fantasies – by visiting the local photographer’s shop. The LACMA lounge, Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography, 1870-1900, offers an in-depth exploration of cabinet cards. Inexpensive items, sold by the dozen, were the main American format for photographic portraiture during the last three decades of the 19th century.

If only I could pose for a “cabinet card” at the peak of their popularity! You’ve seen them all – sepia or color tinted photo prints mounted on card stock. It was just the thing to wedge against the family punch bowl on the dining room cabinet. (Fridge door magnets haven’t been invented yet.) Cabinet cards bloomed in the window between formal photo shoots (think Mathew Brady) and a Brownie camera (think your Grandma and Aunt Zelda posing in Miami Beach). Cell phones and selfies were then beyond imagination.

Professional photographers and their sitters across the United States have brought immediacy to studio portraiture, turning their shoots into avenues of fun and self-expression. You’ll learn about the evolution of the practice card, from its beginnings in celebrity culture, through practitioners’ marketing and advertising strategies, to the various behaviors people have brought to their sessions. I like this part on the various behaviors. I can not wait !

LACMA has this carefree exposure right now through November, and damn it sounds like a delightful thing to do in our COVID world. You will be in a spacious gallery, with people, but they are all a good distance away. So go. Wear your mask.

Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography, 1870-1900 | LACMA Resnick Pavilion | now until November 7

Image: Benjamin J. Falk (active in New York, NY), Helen Luv, 1880s, albumen silver print, 6 ½ x 4 ¼ in., Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

Alfred U. Palmquist and Peder T. Jurgens, St. Paul, MN, [Skater], 1880s, albumen silver print, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, P2016.111, photo courtesy of Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Michael E. Marquez