Found Photos: Television and a Shared Past

9 Dec

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Last week at her talk, Lynn Spigel discussed her new project of amassing found photos of TVs as a body of historical evidence about TV, nuclear family life, and the rise of the suburbs. By taking photos from a wide variety of sources like Tumblr, Flickr, eBay, thrift store bins, and owner submissions, she is creating an archival record of TV from roughly the 1960s to the 1980s. At one point she referred to the project as reconstructing a shared past that displays a massive range of class and taste not captured in mass media ads.

Using photography to create a historical record of TV, she has been able to look at the interplay between TV, photography, and the expectations created by advertisements during the period. A sharp distinction comes to light in comparing the candid shots of families and their TVs and the mass-market ads that inform most memories of TV in the period. Some repeated features that began to show up include the subjects of the photos looking out at the camera rather than at the TV in the frame, the TV as an “electronic hearth” (TV tops as the new mantle place), and the TV as a framing device (the subject of the image is not the TV, but the people posed near it). She actually rejects the idea that the TVs were being used in photographs as a status symbol – a conclusion that seems reasonable to me given that by the early 1960s something like 90% of American households had at least one TV. 

She also noted some physical changes that occurred in the household that the photographs documented. Items like pianos were being displaced by TVs in the living room, their most common location well into the 70s. Additionally, the expectation that family’s would not only have a TV but would place it in their living room reconfigured the logic of plug placement to adhere to the belief that objects shouldn’t “get in the way.” The flipside of this is that the placement of plugs by architects created a preordained organization of the home space around TV.

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2 Responses to “Found Photos: Television and a Shared Past”

  1. hcloftus December 9, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    I was reading recently that Apple is rumored to have a TV set in the works for release in late 2013/2014– one commentator suggested potential success of this product due to the fact that it would be the ultimate status symbol. Going off the notion Lynn Spigel presents of the television being the centerpiece of the room, families could show off the fact that they have such a TV, and more specifically such a sleek, expensive brand. Perhaps it would eventually follow the way of the TV set in the 1960’s, no longer a specific status symbol. However, the fact that it is an Apple product would almost certainly be helpful in the initial unveiling, and maintaining a somewhat luxury branding.

    http://www.macobserver.com/tmo/article/analyst-apples-television-is-coming-just-not-yet

    • Eric Thurm December 9, 2012 at 9:50 pm #

      This use of TVs as a status symbol doesn’t seem to be limited to Apple products. Right now, having 3D TVs is the cutting-edge technology in televisions (even if many people scoff it seems likely that most households will have 3D TVs sooner rather than later), and before that it was a race to see who could have the biggest, highest-definition TV. I wonder though whether or not that’s because of a general consumerist attitude, or because the home has been organized around the TV such that the set is now the nexus of competition between families.

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