At the Davis Museum, a look at photography’s first century or so

UntitledAnonymous/Courtesy Davis Museum at Wellesley College

WELLESLEY — Photography has been such a given for so long. Who ever stops to think about it? It’s like the internal combustion engine that way, except that climate change is making us think about, and rethink, the automobile. Is there such a thing as cultural climate change and rethinking photography?

Two shows at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College look at the medium’s past to give a better sense of its present. “Going Viral: Photography, Performance, and the Everyday” and “Making, Not Taking: Portrait Photography in the 19th Century” both run through June 7. Both are also small, spatially, taking up a single gallery each. But they fill those galleries with a lot of images.


“Viral” has some 120 anonymous snapshots, as well as several photo albums and a vintage Kodak camera. The pictures range in origin from the late 19th century to mid 20th century. No dates are given, but there being only one color photograph argues for a pre-1960 or certainly 1970 cutoff.

“Making, Not Taking” has upward of 100 daguerreotypes, tintypes, cartes-de-visite, and other 19th-century photographs. Even better, it has a mock-up of a daguerreotype portrait studio, including such arresting items as a buffing stick, for polishing the surface of photographic plates, and a head clamp. That sounds like an instrument of torture. It’s the opposite. Exposure times could be so long in the early days of photography that providing a support for the sitter’s head could be a charitable act no less than an aesthetic one.

André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, "Mme. Cusani," c. 1860
André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, "Mme. Cusani," c. 1860André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri/Courtesy Davis Museum at Wellesley College

In some ways, “Making” offers a good overview of the first half-century or so of portrait photography. That so many of the portraits have come down to us in velvet and metal cases, like domestic versions of medieval reliquaries, reminds us how precious these homely items once were. A nice touch is the inclusion of a dozen logos for contemporary photographic studios. Their often-elaborate designs contrast with the simplicity of the photographic images.


In reaching for higher … significance? … the show goes a bit off the rails. Wall text for a section on the dubiousness of photography being put to ethnographic purposes states, “Photography studios sprung up around the globe throughout the century, particularly in the wake of rapid European and American expansionism, colonialism, and imperialism.” That’s a lot of isms. A small section on the relationship between photography and phrenology, a pseudoscience that correlates skull shape with mental characteristics, seems to be here for bien-pensant purposes more than anything else.

UntitledAnonymous/Courtesy Davis Museum at Wellesley College

“Going Viral” starts around the time “Making" ends, with George Eastman’s introduction of easy-to-use cameras for the amateur photographer. The snapshot had arrived.

Such vernacular photography has an irresistible appeal: as social history (inadvertent), as artistry (no less inadvertent and much rarer), as behavioral mirror (who among us hasn’t struck similar poses for the camera?). There are so many visual madeleines here for viewers of a certain analog age: scalloped edges, those black corners used to affix a picture to a backing, that slightly brownish tint for which sepia is far too grand a word.

“Going Viral” somewhat masks that appeal. For starters, there’s that title. Unless understood as a rather clumsy grab at topicality, “Going Viral” makes no sense. Yes, photography became very popular very fast — in the same way indoor plumbing did around the same time. But as a concept relating to visual culture, the phrase describes the act of something becoming ubiquitous; spreading wide, very wide; and not only shared but shared with countless strangers. The snapshot is altogether different, not meme but memory. A snapshot is discrete; personal; shared, yes, but with family and friends only. Physically, a photo album is a kind of book, but a book that’s never published.


The appeal is further obscured by the 11 categories into which the snapshots have been organized. With such happily various material, classification is unavoidable. And some categories make perfect sense: dressing up, pictures of people taking pictures. Some seem a bit … narrow: fires, young women flourishing their skirts (which is supposed to be a reminder that “there is a fine line between agency and conformity in capitalist culture”). Others seem redundant. Aren’t pictures of shadows cast by photographers a variant on people taking pictures? How distinct is cross-dressing from dressing up, other than the former having a gender-studies seal of approval?

Perhaps the largest problem is that “Going Viral” presents these pictures as evidence, and the people in them as specimens. To a degree, that’s inevitable. There’s no information about subjects or sitters. But even if the categories were more illuminating, there’d still be something slightly inhumane, even clinical about the show. Tired tropes matter more than no-longer-living individuals.

In contrast, there’s a famous Walker Evans photograph, “Penny Picture Display, Savannah.” Or, rather, there’s why Evans was drawn to the subject, a poster-size assemblage of many small portraits taken by a studio photographer which the photographer displayed in his studio window. Evans’s taking a photograph of a photograph of a bunch of photographs was in no way meta or reflexive. “I look at it,” he said of the original photograph, “and think, and think, and think about all those people.” Yes.


UnidentifiedAnonymous/Courtesy Davis Museum at Wellesley College

GOING VIRAL: Photography, Performance, and the Everyday

MAKING NOT TAKING: Portrait Photography in the 19th Century

At Davis Museum, Wellesley College, 106 Central St., Wellesley, through June 7. 781-283-2051, www.wellesley.edu/davismuseum

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.