Act out your photographic fantasies: LACMA’s ‘Acting Out’ cabinet-card show

Visual arts

This is fabulous. I love to ‘act out.’ (Just ask my family.) Now there is an entire exhibition dedicated to that proposition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, aka 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 shoppe. The LACMA show, Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography, 1870–1900, offers an in-depth exploration of cabinet cards. The inexpensive items, sold by the dozen, were America’s main format for photographic portraiture through the 19th century’s last three decades,

Would that I could pose for a ‘cabinet card’ at the height of their popularity! You’ve all seen them — sepia or color-tinted photo prints mounted onto card stock. They were just the thing to prop up against the family punch bowl on the dining-room cabinet. (Refrigerator-door magnets having not been invented yet.) Cabinet cards flourished in the window between formal photographic sittings (think Mathew Brady) and a Brownie camera (think of your grandmother and Aunt Zelda posing in Miami Beach). Cellphones and selfies were beyond imagination then.

Professional photographers and their sitters across the United States introduced immediacy to studio portraiture, transforming their sessions into avenues of fun and personal expression. You’ll learn about the cabinet card’s evolution, from its beginnings in celebrity culture, through the marketing and advertising strategies of practitioners, to the diverse behaviors that people brought to their sittings. I like that part about the diverse behaviors. Can’t wait!

LACMA has this carefree exhibition on right now through November, and gosh, it seems like a delightful thing to do in our COVID world. You’ll be in a spacious gallery, with people, but they are all at a nice distance. So go. Wear your mask.

Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography, 1870–1900 | LACMA Resnick Pavilion | now thru Nov 7

Image: Benjamin J. Falk (active New York, NY), Helena 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 the Amon Carter Museum of American Art

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