307 Lynn Spigel’s TV Snapshots

Archival Spaces 307

Lynn Spigel’s TV Snapshots Archive

Uploaded  28 October 2022

On 21 October 2022, Film Quarterly hosted a webinar with Professor Lynn Spigel (Northwestern University) to discuss her new book, TV Snapshots: An Archive of Everyday Life (Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 2022).  Reprising an interview between Bruno Guarana and Spigel in Film Quarterly (Fall 2022, 76/1), the event was hosted by editor B. Ruby Rich. Known for her pioneering work on television, including Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (1992) and TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (2009), Spigel has turned her sights on televisions themselves, rather than the content projected through the box. For her new book, Spigel not only amassed a huge archive of everyday snapshots of people in front of their television sets in mid-20th century America, but analyzed the images to discover why people made such photographs of themselves with their TVs, and the uses such personal social spaces engendered. As she noted, “Armed with snapshot cameras, people re-envisioned the dominant (industry-prescribed) spectator’s use of television, and made themselves the stars of their own TV scenes.”

Lynn began by noting that it was researching her previous books that she started seeing and becoming fascinated with family snapshots taken in front of the home’s television set. She first sought out flea markets to find such photos but realized that this was a too inefficient way of collecting and began to do internet searches, where she soon found thousands. In fact, there was a community of collectors specializing in such images with whom she had to compete.  And while amateur cameras and film were calibrated for white skin, these TV snapshots not only documented white middle-class American households, but also African-Americans, Asians, and other ethnicities, making them significations of class, race, gender, and even architecture.  While digital access proved a boom to her work, she explained that she gave up on using digital tools to classify, order, and analyze the images, even though computer programs had been developed for such works, choosing instead to organize them analog, placing her images in albums according to subject matter and context, as the original users would have done. I understand the impulse because the analog offers a tactile experience of materiality, reproducing the original reception, and allowing for contextual comparisons

Spigel has divided her book into five chapters, based on these categorizations: 1.) TV Portraits: Picturing Families and Household Things; 2.) TV Performers: A theatre of everyday life; 3.) TV Dress-Up: Fashion Poses and Everyday Glamour; 4.) TV Pin-Ups: Sex and the Single TV; 5.) TV Memories: Snapshots in Digital Times. 

While television sets, their size, and their color capability, became a sign of affluence as the 1950s progressed, Spigel argues that consumers also used them to inhabit a space of resistance to a culture of conspicuous consumption and its prescriptions. Indeed, the television quickly became a household object integrated into the homes and lives of almost all Americans, where “people arranged and photographed the tv set in relation to other household activities and things.” (p. 28) TV snapshots not only documented a family’s technical proficiency in operating the new media tool but also “enact(ed) their relationships with each other through their mutual engagement with the new tv.” (p. 32) While images of families or just children watching tv are common, many more show families engaged in other social activities in front of the television, whether holiday parties, even weddings, reading, or playing games. For example, Christmas trees were often placed in close proximity to or even on the television set, setting the stage for the holidays. For African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, the television was a particularly ambiguous object, since on tv they were either invisible or portrayed in racist terms, but tv allowed them to perform their real identities in front of the set. 

The television room in the family home thereby became a performance space, where family members could act out their identities, or different “forbidden” identities, as in the case of a woman seen in drag. At other times family musicians performed in front of the television, or through trick photography placed themselves inside television sets as if they were really on tv. Television was thus used ritualistically as a “portal object,” according to Spigel, whereby families would often photograph themselves or their children in nice clothes before going out.   

Indeed, performances often involved women or children dressing up, creating fashion shows, and wearing clothes specially made for television viewing. Such clothes were necessary fashion magazines stated because cocktail dresses were unsuitable for sitting on the floor to watch tv. Women, i.e. family mothers, sometimes took the snaps themselves because they were actually competing with the television for the attention of their husbands who were glued to the latest sports event. As Spigel writes: “Even if the tv is turned on in these shots, the focus is not on the screen image, but on the woman’s fashion choices and her ability to strike an enticing pose.” (p. 124) When women were behind the camera, it was not just an issue of self-objectification, but rather of the presentation of personal identity. At the same time, women often complained to TV executives about the plunging necklines and overly sexualized images of glamour girls on tv, which they perceived as threats to their marriages.

Such glamour shots in front of the television set sometimes spilled over into erotic pin-up shots, even overtly erotic images. In her fourth chapter, Spigel discusses the history of the pin-up in public media in relation to television, from Kodak advertisements to magazine ads, and Playboy photos. Amateur photographs of women pin-ups in the home often mimicked or lampooned media pin-ups, and photography magazines suggested that amateur photographers actually use their wives as models for such imagery. “In these snapshots, the tv set may well have served as a backdrop for sexual flirtations between posers and camera operators.” (p. 216)

In her final chapter, Lynn Spigel discusses the after-life of these analog photographs, their media ecology, now digitized and circulating on the internet, on social media sites, and in virtual digital photo archives.  Photo sharing is seen as a form of social communication on sites like Flickr and Pinterest, but also a “big data business governed by corporate logics of viral marketing…” (p. 224). As social communication, they articulate nostalgia and memory for the individuals who post them, but they are also performative in the sense that posters are attempting to attract “likes.” A kitsch sensibility and retro aesthetics are now in play, when photographers produce new photographs that look like they are old, critically commenting on television and mid-century domestic culture. Richly illustrated with many close readings of individual snaps, Spigel’s TV Snapshots is a fascinating read for anyone interested in television culture.

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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