The pictures are culled from the author’s collection of some five thousand images, most the work of unknown photographers who never expected them to circulate beyond friends and family. They found their way out into the world through estate sales, secondhand shops and eBay, or were uploaded to various platforms — fragments of personal history, now unmoored from individual memory and available for scholarly inspection or, more commonly, voyeuristic curiosity. Spigel early acknowledges “the sense of eavesdropping or even surveillance I often feel when looking at photos of families that aren’t mine.” On the other hand, in many pictures, people mimic poses from advertisements, films and (of course) the tube itself. The viewer becomes less a snoop than a very late arrival to the imaginary audience for a performance.
It is impossible to know how many TV snapshots were taken over the years; perhaps millions. But unlike the selfie, it seems to have been a practice without a name or recognition at the time. An archive of it now exists only because Spigel created one.
After reading thirty or forty pages of the book, it occurred to me that I could only guess what discipline Spigel was working in. History, media studies and cultural anthropology seemed like possibilities. In fact, she is a professor of screen cultures at Northwestern University, and her monograph part of the field of study acknowledging the contemporary normality of situations in which people watch television while surrounded by — and interacting with — a laptop, a tablet and a smart phone.
The constituting of experience here entails a lot more than the memorializing of a big-ticket purchase. As television became an ordinary feature of the domestic environment (Spigel writes that 90 percent of American homes had at least one set by 1960), posing with it for photos became a kind of ritual — an element of family gatherings, a scene marking someone’s departure for a party or graduation, a final moment in front of the camera for newlyweds before guests left them alone.
Seeing a variety of such images, it becomes clear that the set is not — like a piece of furniture or a stain on the wall — merely visible in the scene but fundamentally irrelevant to it. Rather, it appears to be something like a hearth, if not a member of the family. The living room is implicitly organized around the TV. But the screen did not simply or exclusively preempt the flow of all attention. The area in front of it turned into a kind of stage, and Spigel notes that furniture often appears to have been moved to expand the performance space. People posed with musical instruments, or in drag, or in sequences planned out as if on a storyboard. Articles and cartoons from the 1950s seemed preoccupied with men losing interest in their spouses, their eyes drawn away by onscreen beauties or professional sports. Many photos illustrate the counteroffensive of glamour poses; a smaller number offer more explicit cheesecake. The picture of Marilyn Monroe was the work of a professional photographer, as were some others that appear in TV Snapshots.But some appear to have been taken by amateurs at home, and presumably were developed there.
A few years ago, Spigel notes, a Dutch curator, Erik Kessels, “unearthed TV snapshots from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) taken in the 1980s, when television became widely available in the PRC and a major feature of domestic space,” including a number of images of “a woman using her TV set as a ritual backdrop for displaying her outfits.” Cross-cultural generalization is always hazardous, even with a much larger data set, but the parallel is striking. Spigel treats snapshots “as clues to questions rather than answers, as ways to see things typically thought so inconsequential as to go unseen.”
Their sudden visibility — the fact that they come into view as intriguing after such a long period — is conditioned in large part by the culture now, rather than by when the pictures were created. Spigel indicates that she worked on the book during the years when the center of gravity of television shifted from broadcast to digital streaming. Her archive of snapshots documents a phase of the medium’s development shrinking into the rearview mirror. But they are also artifacts embodying something now much more familiar. The compact camera and the TV set correspond to two phases in the circulation of imagery: production and consumption respectively. In these snapshots, the image cycle is limited: flow, not a flood. The screen remains part of domestic space — and not yet, as it’s becoming now, a home of sorts in its own right.