The stories hidden inside photo wallets

A new book shows how photo wallets capture the history of vernacular photography and its target demographic

More Than A Snapshot, written by professor Annebella Pollen, is a new book that explores the visual history of photo wallets.

Once a commonplace container for photographs that had been developed by film processing companies, their usage dates back to the dawn of the 20th century and the early days of amateur photography. During this time, and in the decades following, customers sent their film rolls to developers and the eagerly-awaited outcome was neatly packaged in these wallets and returned to them.

The core function of the photo wallet is seemingly a simple one, and yet, as Pollen explains in her book, their usage over the years can tell us a lot about the history of vernacular photography and its target demographic. “For me, they show how popular photography was shaped and directed across the 20th century,” she says.

By studying the 100 or so wallets featured in the book, which date from the early 1900s through to the late 90s, we can see that women, more than anyone else, were the primary users of these services, and that they were given not-so-subtle instructions on what and who to photograph. 

Pollen, a professor of visual and material culture at the University of Brighton, explains that the wallets “tell the stories of how popular photographic services were sold, and they offer a view into the major themes I wanted to cover, from the role of women as the main consumers of processing services to the way that certain moods, sites and figures – happiness and holidays, nuclear families and heterosexual couples – were reinforced as photographically appropriate subject matter.”

Beyond just protecting the delicate photographs within, the wallets were designed to offer ‘guidance’ on how to operate a camera, and what to point the camera at. Through writing, as well as pictorial demonstrations, customers were shown proper technique and given tips on what scenes make for good photographs.

Alongside error stickers that were placed on ‘incorrectly’ executed shots, images of typically white-skinned children and families were championed as ideal subjects for these burgeoning photographers, Pollen explains. At points, the film processing companies even refused to develop photographs that they deemed inappropriate, such as sexually explicit images.

As Pollen indicates, these wallets, which are frequently abandoned during house clearances or left to gather dust at flea markets, can speak to a far more expansive and important narrative than the ones found within the photographs themselves. 

“Together, the wallets show social and photographic norms in Britain at a time when photography was growing in popularity, but also much more contained than it is today,” she says. “What photo wallets don’t depict is equally telling, particularly the conditions of the low-paid migrant workers who processed the prints – this is much less charming.”

More Than a Snapshot by Annebella Pollen is published by Four Corners Books;