Monday, July 26, 2010

Playing with Pictures

Organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and currently showing at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Playing with Pictures is an exhibition which celebrates the art of Victorian photocollage. In the 1860s and 1870s, photos of family and friends were cut-up and inserted into other backgrounds to create a whimsical and sometimes surreal image. For example, photos were inserted into the wings of a butterfly, the back of a turtle, a pickle jar, the head of an umbrella, the back of an envelope or onto a piece of luggage. Several albums of such images form the cornerstone of this exhibition.

Created mostly by aristocratic women of the time, the raw materials for this precursor to scrapbooking were cartes-de-vistre, small, inexpensive albumin photographs on thin pieces of cardboard. Trading photos with your friends and social circle was de rigeur. And to include the Prince of Wale's cartes-de-vistre in your album offered proof of high social standing.

This exhibition is a charming display of a largely forgotten Victorian past-time. Some of the pages on display show incredible skill in composition, layout and watercolour technique. (Unfortunately, the adjacent sound piece by Janet Cardiff is a bothersome distraction.) Given the ease with which photo manipulation takes place today, it is an amusing rediscovery of our innate desire to play with pictures.

If you like to play with pictures, the AGO is hosting an online exhibition of submissions. They offer three templates for download and can be posted to their Flickr group or emailed to  For more info, go to

Playing with Pictures continues at the AGO until September 5, 2010.