- Reviewed by
I am pleased to have this book on my shelf. Elizabeth Siegel's "social and cultural history of nineteenth-century American photograph albums" helps us see how nineteenth-century Americans used photograph albums, and it adds to our understanding of the intersection of the commercial and domestic (p. 2). It will particularly interest [End Page 289] those engaged by the historiography of separate spheres—the way "the cult of domesticity's rhetoric of separate spheres went hand in hand with the growing commercialization of private life" (p. 71).
An associate curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, Siegel has examined "hundreds of albums," but she does not focus her analysis here on individual case studies or collective analysis (p. 6). Instead, her most interesting insights connect texts written by and for professional photographers to conventions visible in the albums themselves. Anyone who leafs through a nineteenth-century album will notice how similar the portraits are, with the subjects appearing in only a few conventional poses. Siegel discusses the posing guides that professional photographers shared with each other and published for distributing to their clients, and she connects them to the etiquette books also published in the Victorian era. Further, she argues that "manufactured poses and expressions … might serve to obfuscate the sitter's individuality, but they also marked him or her as part of a like-minded group"—what Benedict Anderson called an imagined community (p. 53). As Siegel points out, combining family members and celebrities in the same album worked in a similar way, conveying the sense of belonging to an extended national family.
Nineteenth-century photograph albums were a central part of parlor culture and the domestic world shaped by women. Even so, "far from being strictly private and personal," they were "products of industrial capitalism, churned out by factories and hawked door-to-door" (p. 72). Thus, Siegel asserts, "commerce infiltrated the home with even more than its usual slipperiness" (p. 94). Siegel explores the "institution" of the family album—that is, the object as well the "established practices of recording, looking, and display" associated with it—and she notes that album manufacturers promoted that institution along with their own wares (p. 85). According to the manufacturers and salesmen, this commercial product soon became a necessity for self-respecting families who wanted to maintain themselves in the face of geographic mobility and death. Albums "seemed to define family itself" (p. 86), if their promoters are to be believed. [End Page 290] Such talk may have made the sale, but families did not necessarily use their albums the way professional photographers and others wanted. Siegel's extended analysis of a particular album published by A. H. Platt shows both how controlling album publishers could be and how blithely album purchasers ignored their prescriptions. Platt provided prompts and instructions for using the album to record biographical information associated with the photographs. Siegel has found two extant copies of Platt's album, owned by two different families who filled them with their own photos. Neither family recorded any of the information Platt called for (pp. 103-10).
This is an attractive book, with a cover evoking the look of a nineteenth-century album. The forty-nine illustrations are appealing and useful, clarifying and elaborating on points Siegel makes in the text.
Sarah McNair Vosmeier teaches history at Hanover College in Hanover, Indiana. She is currently researching the ways ordinary Americans have used photography.