Early in Todd Haynes’s melodrama Far from Heaven (2002), Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) welcomes a reporter and a photographer to her home for a profile in the local Weekly Gazette. Cathy guides the reporter to her living room, where she sits down on the sofa next to a television set, as though posing for a candid shot. Haynes’s balanced composition, framed at eye level, lends equal attention to the protagonist and to the material objects surrounding her: colorful curtains, a vase, the TV set doubling as a stand for a bird sculpture, and, hanging on a wall, a framed advertisement partially cut off from the shot.
As is later revealed, the ad features a drawing of a well-dressed couple—Cathy and her husband—watching a Magnatech TV set. The centrality of the TV set in both the ad and the scene’s mise-en-scène is highly intentional, suggesting the normative discourses of class, race, gender, and sexuality that will gradually be confronted in the film as Cathy finds out about her husband’s gay affairs and herself engages in a romantic relationship with a Black gardener. In posing next to the TV as a model 1950s housewife, Cathy is, consciously or not, reinforcing those normative discourses by conspicuously conforming to them.
For her new book, TV Snapshots: An Archive of Everyday Life, Lynn Spigel has spent the better part of a decade scavenging and collecting thousands of snapshot photographs of TV sets from the mid–twentieth century. For Spigel, these photographs (often featuring people with their television sets) make up an “archive of everyday life” that provides material evidence of television’s status as a dominant medium in American life and culture. They are ordinary photographs shot with ordinary cameras by ordinary people and featuring ordinary subject matter, but here they constitute Spigel’s primary source to write a history of media from below that accounts for people’s daily lives—a framework not centered on industry, technology, or even programming.
In her previous book, Make Room for TV, Spigel addressed television’s impact on American suburban domestic life by analyzing the depiction and promotion of the medium in advertisements, magazines, and mass media. Here, her analysis focuses instead on the ways that viewers and users “projected” television in these snapshots.1 In the “archive of everyday life” Spigel produced, these snapshots are evidence of the varied uses of two important media technologies catering to the family and domestic life. As she puts it, “[A]rmed with snapshot cameras, people re-envisioned the dominant (industry-prescribed) spectator uses of television and made themselves the stars of their own TV scenes” (5).
These unconventional material sources allow Spigel to construct an original framework for reconsidering television’s massive impact in popular culture and family life from the 1950s through the early 1970s. Television stood early on as a sign of modernity in the home and in the family, as well as a marker of wealth. As it spread to more American homes, TV sets began to occupy smaller rooms, displacing other home objects and serving, for example, as stands for decorative objects, or mantles for picture frames.
Although appearing rather centrally in family photographs, these ancillary uses of television—not exactly what advertisers would market it for—had yet to be addressed in a more serious fashion by histories of the broadcast medium. Spigel dives deep into histories of race, sexuality, family and domesticity, architecture, and more, as they are called up by these snapshots. The result is a rich, wide-ranging historical account of cultural, social, and familial practices surrounding both television and photography that extrapolate what are often considered to be the dominant uses of these two media. As a scholar interpreting her own archive, Spigel suggests that TV snapshots are worth analyzing precisely because they have become so naturalized and therefore provide clues suggesting alternative histories or countermemories of television.
Viewed as a whole, within the context of the archive assembled by Spigel, these clues translate social practices, some more clearly than others. Spigel’s textual analysis is thus greatly enriched by adjacent primary sources that include photography handbooks, newspapers, specialty magazines, etiquette manuals, and advertisements Spigel addresses both television and snapshot photography, at once demonstrating the ubiquity of TV sets in the midcentury middle-class home and the extent to which they projected and informed social practices and dominant discourses of race, gender, sexuality, domesticity, and others. Additionally, using the snapshots as a point of departure, Spigel tells a history of television and photography practices from the perspective of the end user, refocusing attention toward practices generally unaddressed by the industry.
The book’s structure employs a nonchronological narrative that avoids teleology. Starting with a basic definition of a TV snapshot—at its simplest, any homemade photograph in which a television set is visible—Spigel addresses increasingly complex placements of television within these photos.
As such, what begins as a deceivingly simple framework truly rewards the reader with impactful revelations about midcentury television, photography, and domestic life. In the first chapter, Spigel considers what she calls “the thingness of television”—that is, the use of TV sets as material objects in the home. This comes across in snapshots featuring people posing next to different TV models across the years: several of them use the dials on their sets, while others simply engage in routine activities such as reading the newspaper or playing with toys nearby. These images reflect a generalized acceptance of television as an object of desire, a symbol of modernity, and a part of the home décor. But they also show how the “empty” space around the TV set was commonly a space of shared conviviality, often the site of activities—such as taking snapshots of family members—that did not include watching. Thus, Spigel highlights the material presence of the TV set alongside the mundane practices around it as key aspects of television history.
The second chapter moves its analysis toward the function and role of television in these snapshots. Here the sets appear more deliberately central to what Spigel, drawing from de Certeau, calls the performance of everyday life. She includes in this category snapshots of people performing, from dances to wedding ceremonies and trick shots that made people (or pets) appear as though they were on TV, as well as photographs that simply captured what was, in fact, on TV (not unlike the now more ubiquitous “screen shot”). These shots recuperate not only people’s proximity to the TV screen—whether it was on or off—but also their active efforts to act out and memorialize their relationship to that object.
Chapter 3 focuses on the glamour of dress-up snapshots featuring women. Here, Spigel suggests that women used “the new medium to direct the gaze at themselves (as opposed to programs on TV) and to fantasize about glamour inside and outside the home” (22). In this sense, TV sets the parameters of glamour and fantasy that pertained to domesticity, intimacy, and public life. Yet, as Spigel shows, dress-up photos can also reveal the labor behind the deliberate performance of the modern or ideal form of femininity.
Chapter 4 addresses similar negotiations in the form of homemade sexualized snapshots that shift the central focus from the family, or even the romantic life of television, to its erotic one. These pinup shots run counter to the typical image of the woman-by-the-TV-set so perfectly captured, for instance, in Far from Heaven. Instead, in different stages of undress, their subjects play with televisions and TV-adjacent objects, often mimicking famous pinups, such as one of Marilyn Monroe in a very revealing pose while on the telephone looking over her shoulder to a TV set on the floor. Compared to the picture-ready families depicted in Kodak manuals, photography magazines, and promotional materials selling television programs and sets, these snapshots appear thoroughly transgressive.
In her fifth and final chapter, Spigel ponders the state of those midcentury TV snapshots as they appear on photo-sharing platforms such as Flickr and Pinterest—two of her sites of research and data collection. While archive theory shines through in Spigel’s recurring considerations of her praxis throughout the book, it takes center stage in this chapter, where the making and sharing of collectibles constitute discursive practices generative of meaning (and of history). It is here that she discusses, for example, a photograph of Emmett Till posing next to a TV set, depicting an affective ordinariness that that has been brutally suspended by his murder and Till’s significance for the civil rights movement. Unable to retrieve this photograph through searches and unable to site it among other, more mundane snapshots of anonymous subjects, Spigel refers to it as “the missing” photograph, rightfully calling attention to the many gaps left unaccounted for in any historical production, including her own.
Such photographs present evidence that not only were the ideal images of the family and of women—as depicted in television shows, advertisements, and photography manuals—incompatible with reality, but they were also actively negotiated by their target audience to conform to those images or even deliberately defy them. Such findings are particularly relevant at a time when snapshot photography has, in its nearly complete digitization, mostly lost its ritualistic nature, and television—as it was—seems to have figuratively left the (family) room. With more control over flow, program, and form of delivery in the hands of viewers, the advent of social-media platforms enables television to offer a seemingly more decentralized and decentering experience today. These TV snapshots provide a view of a time in which television, as an important technological device, restructured the home in significant ways, though not as unilaterally as one may think. Even when control was mostly on the side of the industry, viewers were active users of television, negotiating its rhetoric of domesticity, gender, race, and sexuality, and projecting their own identities through photographs while posing side by side with their television.
Spigel admits that her research required an arbitrary hard stop, a “conscious effort to shut off the mechanisms of my digital devices and personal obsessions” lest this generative research continue unraveling in multiple directions (255). It is Spigel’s strict framework and expertise as a historian that make this massive archive both manageable and comprehensible. Yet, moved by this fascinating history, I suspect readers will, as I have, rediscover TV sets in a dusty family photo album or a framed photograph right there at home. These snapshots will serve as reminders that in front of the screen occupied by live TV programming there was once the lived and living space of the family. TV Snapshots uncovers and recenters what is often neglected in television history and studies: the material space television came to occupy starting in the mid–nineteenth century, its liveliness, and the people that utilized it for various ends, including, of course, taking and posing for snapshot photographs.
How did this project start?
I started with a snapshot of myself as a little girl, wearing a party dress and posing in front of my family’s television set sometime in the early 1960s. When I first found that snapshot (in the 1980s), I wondered if there were others like it. But, at the time, I could not find any. Fast forward to the 2010s, when suddenly I began to find similar snapshots at flea markets, thrift stores—and especially on eBay, where they appeared, and still appear, in constant rotation. I became obsessed with the snapshots as alternative sources for thinking about TV history and the history of midcentury everyday life.
I had previously written histories of television and family life, but my sources generally came from mass media—women’s magazines, ads for TV sets—or from industry archives. While midcentury ads for TV often depicted families circled around the set watching TV, most snapshots show people posing in front of or next to the TV, using it as a backdrop or prop for the presentation of self, family, and gender. And, while magazines and ads generally depicted white, middle-class nuclear families, the snapshots show a broader range of people across ethnic, class, and racial lines. I decided that the snapshots were historically significant. They provide new ways to see TV from the perspective of the posers and camera operators who used the television set not just as a spectator medium, but also as a setting in which to make their own TV scenes and tell their own stories.
How did you find these photographs?
TV snapshots emerged in increasing numbers in the 2010s for two reasons. First, many of the people in these photos are an aging and dying population, so the photos began to circulate at estate sales, at flea markets and thrift stores. Second, digital photography, the internet, and the rise of online stores like eBay created a second life for these snapshots. At flea markets and in thrift bins, TV snapshots are typically strewn in bins with other discarded family photos, so they are relatively hard to find. It is needles-in-a-haystack research. But eBay made the snapshots remarkably easy to find. On a hunch, in 2011, I typed in “TV snapshots,” and the photos have been piling up ever since. But, what to do with them once I found them was much more complex and vexed.
What are the inconveniences, so to speak, of using snapshots as primary sources, or as historical evidence of cultural practices from the mid–twentieth century?
Given the limited technical affordances of snapshot cameras, and the narrow repertoire of picture-taking protocols, these are highly conventionalized images that often look alike. Photographs are never just documents or a transparent window onto the past. They are texts and everyday cultural practices. The snapshots offer clues to the invisible histories of everyday life into which television inserted itself. So, my approach is necessarily conjectural and calls for interpretive speculative methods.
I ground my interpretations by placing the snapshots in wider historical contexts. For example, I explore the history of family photography, histories of homemaking, histories of midcentury sexualities, histories of race and civil rights on television, and the history of domestic architecture and spatial theory. In addition to the snapshots, my sources include women’s magazines, the black press, men’s “girlie magazines,” photography handbooks, television programming, industry archives, and trade journals. As Stuart Hall argues, photographs necessitate a “politics of reading” that calls for historical contextualization and an understanding of the lives of the posers and picture takers.2
How did you arrive at the structure of your book, which offers a sort of classification of these snapshots?
That was not easy. I was confounded by the sheer number of photos I amassed. It was difficult to balance general concepts or themes that I saw emerging across the snapshots with particular details (or thick description) of individual snapshots that made them more than just replications of a single theme. I was interested in the contradictions and differences among them, and I was especially interested in the photos as a source for thinking about countermemories and counterpractices … that went against the grain of the industry’s prescribed uses for TV and identities obscured in official archives for television. For example, snapshots of people posing in drag or even nude in front their TV sets suggest something other than the middle-class-family ideal so often associated with boomer-era TV. So, in organizing the book, I tried to take account of snapshots that indicated counterpractices even while they were not, numerically speaking, the largest group of photos in my collection.
In structuring the book, I also thought a lot about archives and archive theory, which helped me work metacritically with the collection I amassed and the choices I made. Whenever you assign an order to things, it means that your classifications and selections will tell a certain story while excluding others. I’m guessing readers may at times interpret the snapshots differently from ways that I do. I think that is a good thing. I hope people will find new ways to think about the photos beyond the frameworks I impose on them.
These intimate snapshots gain greater historical significance when placed within the large collection you have gathered. How did you manage such a vast collection of mostly decontextualized photos?
Building and managing this homemade archive was challenging. At one point, I purchased digital software to archive the snapshots, but that didn’t work very well. I didn’t feel inspired by looking at digital lists and JPGs; digitalization took away the material pleasures I felt touching and holding the snapshots as I wrote. I decided the best way to organize my thoughts and spark my imagination was to put the photos in ordinary family photo albums. This method seemed more in tune with the way people stored photos and handled them at the time they took these pictures.
Still, as you suggest, found photos are decontextualized. Some have inscriptions like “first TV” or “dress worn at spring dance,” and some have messages like “Dear Auntie … ” These inscriptions offer clues to how snapshots circulated or what they meant to the people at the time. Very few have places inscribed on them. Many have dates stamped on them, but many others do not. I used various criteria to decipher date ranges, including paper stock, sometimes indicated by markings on the back; the design of the borders; color versus black-and-white; and details in the photos…. In some cases, I consulted experts.
I also had the good fortune of finding photo “sets,” by which I mean multiple snapshots of the same people posing with their TV sets on various occasions. These photo “sets” suggest the ritual nature of the TV setting as a posing place in the home. There is one woman who posed about twenty times over a ten-year stretch, and I am still finding snapshots of her with her various TV sets!
Between snapshots and other primary sources such as manuals and photography magazines, what were some of your favorite and most exciting findings?
I was interested to see the different ways people decorated their homes for TV, and what I call the “tele-decorations” that people put on the TV set—everything from bowling trophies to religious objects like Buddha statuettes and Nativity scenes. I was amazed to see so many pictures in which a new TV is placed on top of the old, presumably broken one. This suggests that postwar planned obsolesce had a different twist in everyday practice, as there seems to have been some sentimental attachment to the old TV despite the purchase of a new one.
Among my favorites snapshots are those in which people play instruments in front of the TV (essentially using TV as a theatrical backdrop for in-home amateur performances rather than watching performances transmitted by a mass medium). I adore the snapshots in which people perform (or pretend to perform) wedding ceremonies in front of the set. TV also provided people with new sorts of photographic hobby arts. There are screen shots in which people shoot images off the screen (prefiguring the VCR). I love the trick shots in which people climb into the set and pretend to perform on it. Snapshots of people posing nude are among my most surprising finds.
The photo that is the most haunting to me is of Emmett Till posing in front of his TV set in 1955, just before his murder. The photo is so ordinary and quotidian, yet the brutality of his death and the civil rights movement that it helped to spark are so monumental. Mamie Till-Mobley put the snapshot inside her son’s open casket, and she later enlarged it as a portrait and hung it in her home. I knew about this snapshot before I wrote my book. But thinking about it alongside the other snapshots disrupts any sense of racial innocence in my archive and in TV history generally.
Throughout your book, you often return to Barthes’s definition of the punctum in photographs. How did his concept contribute to your analysis?
Barthes was a huge inspiration, even an emotional resource, for me, as his writing in Camera Lucida is so beautiful, poignant, and evocative.3 I am more sociological and historical in my approach, but my projects (or at least the ones I enjoy most) always start with an affective attachment to a thing. In this case, it was my own TV snapshot, which speaks to my memories of growing up as the daughter of a TV repairman. My father and all his TV gizmos in the basement likely form ground zero for my attachment to TV.
That said, in the book, the punctum has a more general application beyond my own photo. I took a cue from the Annette Kuhn’s book Family Secrets, which suggests that the punctum can resonate in cultural memories among generations, and not just individually.4 I also used insights into photography, archives, family memory, trauma, and affect developed by scholars like Marianne Hirsch, Tina Campt, and Ann Cvetkovich.
What are some of the unexpected uses of television or the spaces surrounding it—its “traffic area”—that appear in these snapshots?
I was struck by the way these snapshots make us notice things that generally go overlooked. The first thing most people say when they first see my photos is that they demonstrate that the TV set was a status symbol or a sign of conspicuous consumption. While some photos suggest this, the theory of conspicuous consumption is weak. Instead, the photos demonstrate television’s significance to social life in the home; they show how people engaged the TV set in myriad iterations of everyday use.
In general, I was struck by the fact that people used the TV set for so many things other than watching TV, in ways the television industry did not proscribe or predict. The fact that people used the TV as a setting for self-presentation was my first observation. And many photos call attention to the things people did in the TV setting. People play games in the empty space around the TV, read books, play accordions. Women knit, feed babies, vacuum the rug. The TV setting is a place of gendered leisure and labor. In addition to its use as a display surface for household treasures, TV is used a worktable for utilitarian objects like irons, hair curlers, and baby bottles. It is, as you say, a “traffic area”—a term domestic scientists used to designate the spaces of the home occupied by multiple people doing numerous things at once. In snapshots, the TV space is full of the mess of everyday life: tangled electrical cords, tossed-out potato-chip bags, laundry baskets—stuff never seen in the glossy photos and ads for TV sets featured in women’s magazines of the period.
What do dress-up TV snapshots reveal about women’s presumed visual competition with television at the time?
Midcentury women’s magazines, TV shows, and other venues of popular culture often depicted television as a rival for a husband’s attention. For example, cartoons showed men ogling bathing beauties on-screen while ignoring their wives. Midcentury sociological surveys voiced female complaints about television’s negative effects on romance. In TV snapshots, women often used the set as a setting for their own glamorous poses that attract attention to themselves rather than to the TV set. In fact, in the 1950s, clothing manufacturers sold “TV clothes” with ads that sometimes explicitly told women they could divert their husbands’ attention away from TV by dressing up to watch TV with them.
But the dress-up photos are not just about women seeking male attention. They are also images of leave-taking. Women pose in fancy clothes before going out for special occasions. They often wear coats and furs or hold purses. In these photos, TV serves as a portal object, and the TV setting is a liminal place that marks the journey between domestic and public space. Such snapshots complicate historical accounts that suggest that TV isolated women in the home.
How do TV snapshots featuring Black women articulate an oppositional form of spectatorship, or even an alternative black aesthetic?
I discuss this especially when I consider snapshots that feature Black women dressing up and posing in front of the TV set. I place these snapshots in the wider history of black fashion and glamour, and mass-media depictions of Black women. I consider television’s historical exclusions of women of color and its stereotypical depictions of mammy figures and maids or oversexed jezebels.
I think the snapshots of Black women—and women of color more generally—tell us something different. Drawing on bell hooks’s seminal work on black photography, I see the snapshot camera as what she describes as a tool for an oppositional black aesthetic that defies the stereotypes and exclusions of mainstream media.5 I speculate that even while women of color may not have directly intended their TV snapshots as explicit acts of resistance, in effect by dressing up and posing in front of the screen, they spoke back to the exclusions and demeaning representations transmitted on TV. By taking a picture of themselves looking glamorous in front of their TV set, they made themselves the pleasing focus of attention even if TV programs did not, and they presented themselves on their own terms.
What is the relationship between TV pinups and some of the snapshot practices you discuss in the book?
The TV pinups I explore are photos of women posing, in various stages of undress, in front of TV sets. Many were created by professional pinup photographers for men’s magazines like Playboy, Bachelor, or Modern Man. These professional pinups were sometimes shot by women. Ruth Sondak was the uncredited photographer for Playboy’s first “TV Playmate” centerfold in 1956, and Bunny Yeager (one of the most famous midcentury pinup photographers) shot numerous TV pinups.
There is also a whole set of “homemade pinups” taken with ordinary snapshot cameras. In these homemade examples, ordinary women pose in front of or next to their TV sets wearing skimpy bathing suits or negligees or sometimes entirely nude. It’s certainly possible that the women in these photos felt objectified or uncomfortable. But I draw on feminist scholarship on pinups and on histories of midcentury sexuality to think about possible forms of agency and pleasure that some women might have felt posing for these photos. More generally, these homemade pinups defy received wisdom that early TV was essentially a family medium and electronic hearth. Rather than just an object for family togetherness, these images show that that the TV set was also an erotic zone in the home.
Are there gaps in your research and in your own archive with which you would have liked to engage more directly?
Given the nature of found photos, much remains unsaid or unknowable. I can’t think of a snapshot I don’t want to know more about. I would especially like to know more about the global circulation of the snapshots and why people in so many parts of the world engaged in this practice. There are TV snapshots from France, the UK, China, Mexico, Canada, Belgium, Israel, Egypt, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Chile, Australia, and other parts of the world. Although I published some of these photos, I felt unequipped to understand them in their cultural contexts. I hope others will find them useful for media history on a more global scale.
Finally, there are gaps—or, more correctly, blind spots—that have to do with my own identity. Despite my efforts at historical contextualization, I inevitably view the photos through a personal frame of reference and my own memories of growing up with TV. More so than in other books, I felt the limitations of my white, middle-class-aspirant, suburban life experiences. I knew that I could never fully understand the intimate experiences of people of color in snapshots, or those who grew up in very different circumstances. Snapshots are images of intimacy, and at the time (before Instagram), they circulated in intimate discourse networks among family and friends. When looking at other people’s photos, not meant for me to see, I feel like an eavesdropper. The snapshots pose ethical concerns, especially those in which women (or less often men) pose nude. I decided not to publish those. So, that is an intentional gap.
In my last chapter, I speak to issues of inclusion and absence within the digital platforms on which I found most of the snapshots. Digital archives—and online stores like eBay—seem so expansive and generative that it is easy to fall into the fallacy of thinking you’ve seen it all. It’s easy to forget that digital archives are constituted through selection, exclusions, and processes of digital erasures and deletions. So, forgetting and gaps are built into these platforms even while they appear so full.
How do digital-media archives and photo-sharing platforms offer these analogic media artifacts a kind of remediated afterlife?
The digital archive offers new opportunities for historians, but is also something that needs to be understood as a form of mediation, a particular mode of projecting, remembering, and forgetting the past. In my last chapter, I explore how TV snapshots circulate on share sites like Flickr and Pinterest, and I analyze the memory cultures around them. I consider the creative labor of online curators and digital-art photographers who create what I call “TV snapshot remakes.” For example, I explore retro TV pinups that circulate on share sites. These are ironic and playful images that rethink midcentury TV in its relationship to women. More generally, I’m interested in the politics of memory and nostalgia, and the way digital archives remediate and organize the past. In that I found most of my snapshots online, I am especially conscious of the irony of my project: these analog TV snapshots are available today largely due to the digital media that displaced them.
What is your next project about?
I am working on two things. First, I’ve recently designed my own digital archive, a collaborative website called tvalbum.com. It’s live and available in nascent form now. It contains TV photos from my collection, and it allows people to upload their own TV snapshot and write a brief memory about it. Northwestern University PhD students Latina Vidolova and Kylie Walters did much of the work in setting up the site. The idea came to me because so many people tell me they have their own TV snapshots or send them to me. I’m hoping to get submissions from people around the world.
My second project is a book on the history of digital domesticity and smart homes, tentatively called Homing Devices. It picks up on my previous books and essays on media homes. But it’s hard to leave my interest in snapshot photography and TV behind, and I imagine I will return to both in future scholarship. I think what I liked most about writing TV Snapshots is the fact that it was so much fun and that it surprised me. I’d never have imagined I would write this book, but then here it is.
See Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Stuart Hall, “Reconstruction Work: Images of Post-War Black Settlement,” in Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography, ed. Jo Spence and Patricia Holland (London: Virago, 1991), 152–64.
See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).
See Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination (London: Verso, 1995).
See bell hooks, “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life,” in Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York: New Press, 1995), 54–64.