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Exhibitions: Understanding the Ritual of 19th-Century Wedding Photography

By David Schonauer   Sunday July 16, 2017


What’s love got to do with it?

Today, marriage is seen largely as a romantic endeavor, but that wasn’t necessarily the case in the 19th century. Then, notes Time LightBox, marriage was the sealing of a formal contract, and romance was an incidental perk — and that status was evident in wedding photography from the period, which, adds HuffPost, featured little touching or even smiling as husbands and wives, apparent strangers, posed next to each other. Nuptials were serious affairs, not the modern party we are accustomed to.

Several years ago, Frank Maresca of New York City’s Ricco Maresca Gallery began collecting vintage wedding photos in the form of Cabinet Cards, a style of portrait photography mounted on card, and as time went on he became increasingly fascinated by the type of ritual they immortalized. His collection, on view through September 9 in the exhibition “I Do, I Do,”  reveals what Time calls “the strange and decidedly prosaic world of 19th Century newly-weds.”

Cabinet Cards grew in popularity because of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert. When they were married in February 1840, the couple memorialized the event with a wedding portrait — a painting. “Fourteen years later, technology had advanced and photography was en vogue,” notes Huff Post. “So Victoria and Albert pulled a move to which any devoted Instagrammer can relate: They dressed up in their wedding garb to take the posed, nuptials-themed studio portrait they never had.”

The black-and-white image of the power couple sparked a trend, which spread throughout the U.K. before heading to the US some 30 years later. “That photograph by Roger Fenton was widely distributed all over the world,” Maresca tells Time. “The young royals were trendsetters of the time, just as celebrities shape contemporary culture today.”

In a sense, the photographic recreation turned marriage into a performance.


Maresca found his Cabinet Card wedding photographs on eBay, Etsy and in various flea markets. While collecting the images, Maresca noticed that the vast majority of them, which date from 1885–1900, emerged from cities and small towns in Wisconsin. “The population of Wisconsin, for whatever reason, caught on to this tradition first and it became a fad,” he tells HuffPost.

The cross-section of society documented in the images shows that wedding photos were not restricted to the upper classes, notes Time. But money did have an impact on how people looked in the photographs: Bride’s seldom wore white. “In the 19th century, life was not as clean as it is now. To own a white garment was a laborious thing,” explains Maresca. “People who wore white usually had a laundress.”



The sameness and the subtle differences in the pictures are what first captured Maresca, notes Time. “I’ve been asking myself, what story is this telling me? It’s certainly telling me something,” Maresca says. “More and more, at least it’s what I see in the art business, if you want to call it that, people want to look at things from a distance. And they want to be satisfied immediately. Fewer and fewer people want to work for their information.”

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