Dated Photographs: The Personal Photo Album as Visual and Textual Medium


Dahlgren, Anna. ‘Dated Photographs: The Personal Photo Album as Visual and Textual Medium’, Photography & Culture, 3:2, 175-194


Unlike personal photo albums made after 1900, text is scarce in general in personal carte-de-visite albums and, especially, indications of when the images were taken are very rare.

This characteristic seems to suggest a different view of the relationship between photography, time and identity.

[describes Nordiska Museet collection]

Earlier studies of photo albums have tended to concentrate on the images contained within them, the way they produce meaning and how they form discourses (see for example Chafen 1987; Hirsch 1981; Holland 2000; Holland and Spence 1991; Motz 1989).

More recent publications, for instance by Patrizia Di Bello and Martha Langford, consider the functions and meanings of albums as material objects, but their main focus is on the images.

The present study extends the notion of the materiality to include the album’s size, material, decorations, design, and tactile means of inserting images and text. Examining nineteenth-century personal photo albums first and foremost offers clues to album cultures and customs. Yet it may provide clues more generally to photographic practices of the late nineteenth century, which may be harder to discern once photographs originally destined for the album have been taken out of their original context of use.

Museums and archives that collect and maintain photo albums often conceive of them as mere containers of data. This is especially true of the carte-des-visite albums from the late nineteenth century.


The photo album can be described as a medium, in other words an instrument for storage and transmission of information.

[Discusses Bolter and Grusin term of ‘remediation’]

Accordingly, to understand the photo album as medium, one must consider a range of cultural objects and practices, both diachronous and synchronous, on a material as well as on a functional level.


I argue that the photo album should not only be seen as a follower to the sentiment album, but also linked to the earlier traditions of the Stammbuch.

Even though metal plates were not common on the cover of Stammbucher, the very use of coats of arms on photo albums seems to acknowledge the album’s descent from this earlier method of collecting and displaying the signifiers of kinship, family connections and social networks.

According the Welling, there were three types of photo albums in the nineteenth century, based on content or use: personal albums, official albums and specialty albums (Welling 1976).


The personal carte-des-visite albums were filled with photographs of people, works of art, and views, either commercially or privately distributed.


The carte-des-visite album was central in the public part of the home, often presented on the drawing-room table for guests to  browse through. It represented the social status of the owner, based on kinship and friendship, as well as the tastes and preferences of the owner, since these were collections of admired persons in general (Gernsheim 1955).

The appearance of the amateur albums is closely connected to the invention of relatively cheap and easy to use cameras in the 1880s.

While the carte-des-visite albums had lavish designs with leather binders and elaborate decoration on the pages, the mass-produced albums had a simpler design and binding, often a paper binder and no decoration of the pages.

In short, the personal carte-des-visite albums are collections of types or specimens while the later personal albums take the form of a life story or diary. The changes in image content as well as design of the cover imply different uses and different audiences. The album went from being a public part of the domestic sphere to become a more private object shared only with the closest family. Furthermore, as will be shown, this shift in the uses of personal photo albums influenced inscription practices.


The images in personal carte-des-visite albums from the late nineteenth century in the collection at Nordiska Museet and elsewhere are often unaccompanied by text and are in very few cases dated.

[rare, but where found, the majority of indexes] have the same layout and handwriting, which indicates that they were probably made by the same hand – most probably some archivist at the museum – at the time of accession. In short, this means that indexes were added when the albums were incorporated into the museum  collection. Consequently, when consumed by their original users, these albums contained only a few inscriptions that can still be found on the album pages and the recto of the images.


If the compilers of albums in the late nineteenth century had little interest in making notes on when the photographs were taken: this is in pronounced contrast to personal albums compiled in the twentieth century.

Recording the time of exposure seems to be even more important than writing down the names of the portrayed people, no doubt due to the fact that the portrayed people in an album are easy to identify by its users and therefore the information is considered superfluous.


This focus on dating and a chronological structure is typical of albums from the 1920s onward in the collection at Nordiska Museet. Indications of years, however appear earlier and become common from around 1900 in personal albums. Thus the photographs is albums from the first decades of the twentieth century are dated but not necessarily chronologically structured. In other words, they could be said to mix up the makeup of the carte-des-visite chronotype and the later, diary-like albums.


It seems that the first decades of the twentieth century were a transitional period  when design, content, and inscription practices gradually changed.

When it comes to inscription practices, it also seems that this was a transitional stage.

One explanation for the practice of not dating photographs in the albums of the late nineteenth century can be found in contemporary ideas and practices in portrait photography. In is clear that the photographic portrait was not primarily apprehended as an image of a moment in time – what a human being looked like on a certain occasion. Rather, its main task was to be a truthful representation of an individual in a figurative sense.

The notion that a photographer should be able to portray the sitter’s external appearance as well as the inner character or personality can be found in many contemporary manuals for photographers but was also a recurrent theme in instructions for portrait painters.


Another potential rationale for the practice of not writing text in the personal album is connected to how it was used or consumed. From the 1860s onwards the photo album was a popular conversation piece in the middle class drawing rooms of Europe. The photo album is as much an oral medium as a visual medium, as pointed out by Langford, and from the start conversation was a central feature of photo albums.

Thus virtual meetings took place on the album’s pages,but also between the user and the images. Flipping through an album looking at portraits of friends and family was described as a meeting between the portrayed, but also as a meeting between the beholder and the portrayed persons.

Beside the virtual meetings and conversations that took place between the portrayed people and the beholder, there was also the real conversation in the drawing room associated with the uses of photo albums.


The absence of names opened up the possibility for conversation and would also put guests to the test.

There is a clear conceptual link between personal, vernacular, and official, scientific uses of portrait photography in the second half of the nineteenth century (Hamilton: 2001). While the ladies and gentlemen in the drawing room amused themselves by looking at portraits of types and individuals, learning to identify them by their visual appearance from photographic portraits, scientists in psychiatry, anthropology, and criminology also trained and developed their identification skills, but for other ends.

[mentions Frances Galton and Jean F, Charcot]

The thrill as well as the need to be able to read faces, to identify or classify persons by their looks, can be understood in relation to the social changes due to industrialization and urbanization in Europe and North America during the period.

The modern, urban cityscape was characterized by anonymous crowds, short and haphazard meetings, and at the same time “the visual markers of class, prestige, status or esteem were in a constant process of flux…and old signifiers of social position were eroded” (Hamilton: 2001).

In this context photography became an important tool for registration and observation of likenesses and differences. Subsequently the practice of producing and consuming photo albums evolved in a context obsessed by classification and visual identification.


The photographic portraits of the royals and people in power that circulated in the late nineteenth century can be described as democratization of the right to look, even though the main reason for European royalties to have their portraits distributed was to maintain their popularity and thus secure their power.

In this period, the personal or private and the scientific or instrumental uses of photography were not mutually exclusive.

[Description of Galton’s use of vernacular photographs]

[Description of The book of indiscretions a collection of questions about a person to create a “self-photography” to accompany their photograph]

[…] the medium – the album – tied the private and professional practices of collecting identities together as photo albums were the common storage media for photographs; albums were also used to register and control the condemned.

As a belief in change, improvement and recovery permeated the practice of psychiatry and correctional treatment, dating was vital.


[describes a nineteenth century prison register]

Unlike the personal album of the 1860s, this official album is carefully dated and furthermore the written information that accompanies the portraits contains data on age, place of birth, and character.

This […] strengthens the hypothesis that the omission of textual information in personal carte-des-visite albums was deliberate. Time was not a significant factor for the personal uses of photographic portraits in the period, as the images were not representations of moments in time but representations of people.


To present the year of production of a photograph is common practice today, and this holds for contemporary professional and personal as well as historical photographs. […] dating was not so accentuated in early private uses of photography.

Considering the photo album as a medium and carefully studying its material features, such traces of culture help to make customs and general perceptions visible.

While the personal albums of the late nineteenth century were primarily collections of types of specimens, the personal albums later took the form of a life story or a diary where time was a crucial factor. The portraits in the personal carte-des-visite album, on the other hand, were not seen as moments in time but instead appreciated as distillations of personalities, which connects the personal uses of photographic portraits and painted portraits.

As belief in change and improvement permeated disciplines like criminology, psychology, and anthropology, the date of registration was carefully recorded. In contrast, in the personal albums of the late nineteenth century, time – in this sense – was not a salient feature. One of the main qualities of the personal photo albums, on the other hand, was their changeable, flexible, open character due to the composition of images without anchoring text.


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