While Dallas museums remain closed, Fort Worth art institutions have reopened their doors to visitors, and there's an exciting new exhibition opening next month that is sure to be worth a drive to the west side of the Metroplex. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art will unveil "Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography" on August 18.
It will be the first in-depth examination of a 19th-century photographic phenomenon called cabinet cards, which were basically a direct ancestor to selfies. Think: 19th century meets Instagram.
"Charting the proliferation of this underappreciated photographic format, 'Acting Out' reveals that cabinet cards coaxed Americans into thinking about portraiture as an informal act, forging the way for the snapshot and social media with its contemporary 'selfie' culture," the Carter says in a release.
The exhibition will display hundreds of photographs — many seen publicly for the first time — from collections nationwide and the Carter’s own massive photography collection.
“This exhibition harnesses the resources of our vast photography collection and archive to show visitors the contemporary relevance of the medium’s pre-modern history," says Carter executive director Andrew J. Walker in the release.
They further explain the history of cabinet cards like this:
"In the second half of the 19th century, cabinet cards gave birth to the golden age of photographic portraiture in America. Measuring 6 1/2 by 4 1/4 inches, roughly the size of the modern-day smartphone screen, they were three times larger than the period’s leading photographic format. This larger size revealed previously obscured details in the images captured, encouraging action-ready gestures and the introduction of an astonishing array of props. Where photographs had once functioned as solemn records of likeness and stature, cabinet cards offered a new outlet for entertainment and remembering life’s everyday moments."
Cabinet cards prompted subjects of photos to become more comfortable with having their portrait made — and then to take their own photos as records of their lives.
"By the time Eastman Kodak introduced its new affordable Brownie camera in 1900, cabinet cards had primed Americans to photograph every aspect of their lives," the museum says. "Though produced over 100 years ago, cabinet cards have a familiarity and a levity that resonates with our experience of photography today."
The display will be divided into four parts, chronicling the birth and evolution of the cabinet card, all the way to Americans’ acceptance of the camera as a tool for shared amusement.
“In our current moment of ‘selfie’ culture and social media-centered interaction, understanding the history of self-presentation and portraiture is more prescient than ever,” says John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs at the Carter. “This exhibition reveals how 19th-century Americans approached photography far more playfully than ever before, a transformation that forever shifted our relationship to the medium.”
"Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography" was organized by the Carter and will be on view August 18-November 1, 2020. Then it will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The Carter reopened to the public June 19 after its months-long coronavirus shutdown. It was the first major DFW museum to reopen; Dallas museums have chosen to remain closed but have announced guidelines for how they will safely reopen when the time comes.
The Carter has implemented new health and safety guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including the wearing of masks and social distancing measures.
For more information, visit the museum's website.