As CMA’s Director, I frequently travel to meet with colleagues, preview exhibitions that will be coming to our own museum, and check out artists or shows that we’d like to bring to Columbus. It’s also great when I get to go to shows that have borrowed works from our collection. We lend more than 25 works a year to shows around the world (Ok, in all honesty, I only get to visit the works that are nearby. We lent a work to China this past year – no I didn’t get to go). One of the benefits of those “frequent flyer miles” is that I get the chance to experience an incredible range of exhibitions. One of my recent favorites is a fantastic tintype show that I toured at New York’s International Center of Photography.
It was fascinating to see the lowly tintype being treated as a serious art form. The pieces in the exhibition range from the very serious and staid to wild and quirky pieces reflecting an incredible sense of humor. Vernacular photography, that is, photographs created by both amateurs and commercial photographers who captured their own world, is a passion of mine.
I’ve collected cabinet cards, photographs usually taken by professional photographers and mounted on a card measuring 4 ¼ inches by 6 ½ inches, and who knows, maybe someday my collection will become part of the Museum’s collection. Cabinet cards offer a fascinating glimpse back in time. They, like the tintype before them, helped to democratize photography and portraiture.
For centuries, portraits were exclusively for the aristocracy and wealthy. They were used to commemorate moments in time, extol status and wealth, and sometimes even to secure a marriage contract. They were also expensive. In the nineteenth century, daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography, sprang forth and forever changed the world of portraiture. Photographers, often traveling from town to town, set shop and everyone rushed to be the first to take part in this newfangled technology. Daguerreotypes, though not cheap, were inexpensive enough to allow for more people to have a portrait of themselves.
The daguerreotype produced only one “photo.” Technological advances led to the development, right here in Ohio I’d like to add, of the tintype, which was actually printed on iron, not tin. Introduced in 1856, the tintype, “provides a startlingly candid record of the political upheavals that occurred during the four decades following the American Civil War, and the personal anxieties they induced. The tintype studio became a kind of performance space where sitters could act out their personal identities, displaying the tools of their trade, masks and costumes, toys and dolls, and props of all sorts.”
I encourage you to see this fascinating show. If that’s not possible, be sure to stop in and check out the fantastic daguerreotypes in our Objects of Wonder from The Ohio State University.
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CMA Executive Director