Picture This: Photo Albums

The Emergence of the Photo Album

The history of the photo album is a continuation of the history of the scrapbook, which I explored in the previous Picture This blog post. Both practices coincide with the invention of technologies that enabled individuals to gather, organize, and display words and images that could tell a story about themselves. While the art of scrapbooking can be traced back to the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s, the photo album directly connects to the invention of the daguerreotype photograph in 1840.

The Early Photo Album

Named after its inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, the daguerreotype was the first commercially successful photographic process that enabled portrait studios to open across Europe and North America to capture detailed, accurate still images of their subjects. The daguerreotype process was expensive, and thus was accessible only to wealthier families. The act of taking the photograph itself was further reserved for only professional photographers and mostly in their professional studios. The early photo albums of the 1860s-1890s then, mostly consisted of staged portrait shots of upper-class families in conventional poses, wearing their best dress, alongside studio props.

An example of an early photo album dated to 1883 in the Museum Collection. Note the very similar staging of each portrait, from each person’s pose, their style of dress, to the props and backdrop used. I’ll come back to this photo album later in this post. STCM 1970.58.647 & STCM 1970.58.660

The Snapshot Photo Album

Photography evolved again in the late 1880s, when Kodak launched the Brownie box camera and the roll film in 1880. Using the advertising slogan, “you press the button, we do the rest,” Kodak had invented a form of photography that could be both easy and affordable to the ordinary person. The kodak camera gave way to the “snapshot” photograph, where candid moments could be captured by the people experiencing them. The snapshot was less staged and could be taken outside of the portrait studio and into everyday life. Families now had more agency over their representation in their own albums.

The snapshot era of the photo album also came amid an age of profound cultural, societal, and economic change at the turn of the twentieth century. More and more people had access to capturing moments in their lives at a time of industrialization, global war, and mass immigration. So, while these photo albums were highly personal in the photographs selected for inclusion and the captions written, the albums themselves are also an embodiment of culture and society at a particular moment in time.  

Capturing the Life of a Young St. Catharines Woman in the 1910s

An example of a snapshot photo album in the Museum Collection is that of St. Catharines resident Eva Bessey. Compiled with photographs taken between 1912 and 1917, this photo album intimately captures Eva’s life and the people, places, and events that held meaning to her.

The captions included in the album give some context to the photographs, but also gives the viewer a glimpse into Bessey’s personality. STCM 1976.190.156 & 1976.190.157
The photo album is thick with heavy, textured black pages. Each page is carefully arranged with glossy black-and-white photographs, typically one or two to a page. In white pencil, Eva, the album creator, documents the month and year for each photo, and records captions of varying degrees of description and humor. STCM 1976.190.48 & 1976.190.149

Flipping through the pages, the viewer quickly forms a connection to Bessey as they gain an intimate look into her life. The viewer becomes familiar with the faces that appear on the pages and the places where Bessey seemed to spend her time. From the photographs selected for inclusion in the album, it seems that Bessey preferred the summertime, as this is when most of her photos were taken. She includes shots of different friends and family members posing in front of orchards and gardens, or on bridges and porches. Sometimes she is in the photos, sometimes she is holding a dog or is with a horse, and sometimes she isn’t in the frame, but perhaps the one behind the camera.

A number of pages in the photo album were revised at a later date with blue pen. STC, 1976.190.160

Bessey’s captions include amusing sayings and inside jokes between her and the subjects of the photos, as well as names and dates. The viewer can also tell a lot by what’s not included. Some photographs are left uncaptioned, which may be telling that for Bessey, the person in the image is so familiar that writing down a name is unwarranted. This may also be why, that sometime at a later date, someone with a blue pen identified the photographs with Bessey’s future husband James Watson.

Eva Bessey’s photo album depicts the special moments in the life of an ordinary young woman in the 1910s. It tells the story of friendship, family, and the light-hearted memories and enjoyable moments she treasured over a period of five years. Some major events are captured in the album, including scenes from the construction site of the Welland Ship Canal in 1914 and 1915, and a photo of the 19th Battalion marching at Hamilton in May of 1915. However, no express mention is made of just how ginormous the undertaking of constructing the fourth canal was. Nor did Bessey allude to the outbreak of the First World War and the subsequent Homefront war effort that would have been a very visible reality at the time most of the photographs were taken. This was not the story Bessey wanted to capture and preserve in her photo album. Rather, the camera, and her photo album, gave Bessey agency to tell the story of her young adulthood they way she wanted to tell it.

What stories would Eva Bessey had told the viewer if they were to flip their this album’s pages together? STCM 1976.190.154 & 1976.190.155

The Photo Album as a Storyteller

Photo albums are an interactive medium and tools for conversation and storytelling. Similar to the art of scrapbooking, the process of compiling an album involves organizational choices that, though they may seem insignificant at the time, collectively shape our memories of certain people, events, or experiences.

The value of the family photo album then, is as a tool for storytelling, conversation, and memory recollection. The practice of viewing photo albums is a social act, usually between the album creator(s) and the viewer. In fact, since the first albums emerged in the 1860s, it was common practice for wealthy families to display their photo albums in their parlours, waiting for visitors to the home to view. The act of socially turning the pages of a photo album evokes feelings, compels conversation, and unlocks memories that would not otherwise be articulated if the album, and the images arranged within, had not existed. The unwritten stories of photo albums then, also enables families to pass them down through generations as the album continues to be shared among family members.

The families featured in this 1883 photo album remain unidentified, and thus the connections, stories, and memories shared among them lost. STCM 1970.58.675

However, this also means, that the stories and memories held within a photo album are at risk of vanishing when it strays from the custody of its original creators, compilers, and family members. The portraits that fill the pages of the 1883 album noted earlier, for example, remain unidentified. What’s more, the album seems to be comprised of portraits of different families seemingly unrelated, or at least this is the impression given to the viewer almost 150 years later. Without the creator, the story of this photo album is lost forever. There is a certain sense of sadness to this, that the faces in each portrait remain anonymous, and the relationships and experiences shared between the family members lost. The viewer might assume that the people in the album were so familiar to the creator that identification was not deemed necessary, or perhaps the album belonged to a studio photographer aiming to compile their best work into an album. Our interpretation of this photo album relies too heavily on speculation, leaving it open to many interpretations as the viewer imprints their own impressions and biases onto the pages.

Take this as a not-so-subtle hint, dear reader, to name and date the photos in your family albums, and caption them with context if you can!

Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

Further Readings

Elizabeth Buhungiro. Origins of Ordinary Things: Photo Albums. 2017.

Tim Clark. The Vanishing Art of the Family Photo Album. 2013. 

Barbara Levine and Stephanie Snyder. Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing the American Photo Album. 2006.

Jeffrey Mifflin. Review: “Metaphors for Life Itself”: Historical Photograph Albums, Archives, and the Shape of Experience and Memory. 2012.

Mette Sandbye. Looking at the Family Photo Album: A Resumed Theoretical Discussion of Why and How. 2014.

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