When inexpensive cameras came along in the 1880s, ordinary people could do just what they wanted with them. And they did things that hadn’t occurred to the commercial photographers, artists, and serious amateurs who had been in charge of photography until then. The new cameras were used for new reasons and on new occasions, and the pictures they produced had a new look—informal, glancing, effortlessly intimate. It was a look that didn’t know it was new, didn’t even know it was a look; it barely seemed to be aware of the professional standards of the time at all. But the professionals saw what was new in snapshots almost immediately, and they admired it. What cheap cameras could do, fancy cameras could simulate: art photographers from Jacques-Henri Lartigue to Nan Goldin have borrowed the snapshot look as a stylistic manner. It retains a certain formal fascination to this day.
After many decades of being imitated, snapshots have begun to stand on their own two feet. Exhibitions and books with one angle or another on snapshots as primary material now appear regularly. The current wave of interest began with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s 1998 show “Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present”; the Metropolitan Museum in New York followed in 2000 with “Other Pictures: Anonymous Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection.” Most recently, the National Gallery mounted “The Art of the American Snapshot 1888–1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson” in 2007. Each show was more ambitious and each catalogue more sumptuous than the last; interest is plainly growing.
Though all three shows attempt to bring snapshots into the realm of “art,” they disagree profoundly about how to do that. SFMOMA’s exhibition makes much of chance echoes of art photography, while allowing an uncertain nostalgic tone. The Met’s avoids nostalgia and presents a highly focused personal taste, a self-conscious international “found Modernism.” The National Gallery’s show adopts an impersonal custodial stance, giving us a social history of what it considers a popular (and, it would seem, specifically American) art form. The kindest interpretation of all this would be to say that the intellectual basis of the field is still in flux. But the parade of incompatible curatorial attitudes and conceptual frameworks might simply mean that there’s no good way to build snapshots up into much of anything after all. Certainly the field is poorly defined, and, perhaps for that very reason, still somewhat marginal. Is there really no coherent underlying object or phenomenon or enterprise? It sometimes seems that way.
Snapshot shows are struggling with the following question: How can we pay any attention to snapshots as photographs and feel serious about what we’re doing? Snapshot collectors, the people who actually find the photos that wind up in galleries and museums, don’t worry about this question at all, but that doesn’t mean it’s trivial. The collectors do what they do; the curators and book editors, at the next level, have to make a case for what goes on one level down because they’re the ones putting the results before the public. Defensible or not, there is without a doubt a ground-level climate of feeling about snapshots, one with considerable internal consistency. Some people “get” snapshots as a category, and some people don’t. The people who get them get them in the same way, and at least to the extent that there’s something to get, a genuine contemporary phenomenon really is driving the above-ground public events. Not that all snapshot collectors have the same view of every snapshot—there’s plenty of room for taste. For collectors, snapshots are personal. But the second-order events, the books and shows that try to package the pictures in some fashion, have muddied the waters in trying to find a way to present snapshots to the public. They disagree among themselves on what the enterprise is all about, and in fact they haven’t found a convincing formulation.
One way to feel serious about snapshots, implicit in the SFMOMA and Met shows, is to relate them to art photography as it’s usually understood—to the high-art practice that’s been with us since David Octavius Hill. It’s not obvious how to do this, although I believe most collectors are assuming there’s a connection. The two genres are pretty well defined, and they don’t seem to overlap. Despite great technical evolution, snapshots have played essentially the same social role from the first Kodak on, and their defining characteristics haven’t budged. A snapshot must be taken by a snapshot camera; snapshots didn’t exist before that first Kodak. Constrained by the design of snapshot cameras, snapshot formats are limited in number and small in size. Until very lately, when digital photography made home printing easy, snapshots were almost always developed in commercial labs. Snapshots are generally anonymous: their authorship doesn’t matter to their authors. Art photographs, typically differing in all these respects, would seem to belong in another category entirely. So surely we can’t treat snapshots as if they were art photographs, at least not without further qualification. Clear enough—and yet it’s still vague. Yes, there are differences in how they’re made and who makes them, but is that really important? Could it be that snapshots and art photographs are arriving at the same place by different routes? If there are essential points of difference, do snapshots have something that art photographs don’t have, or just lack things that art photographs do have? If they have something of their own, what is it? What exactly is the high-art element that seems to want to creep into snapshot shows? Should it be there? What can we do with snapshots that’s completely fair to whatever is inherent in them?
Another way of interpreting snapshots as art of a kind, implicit in the National Gallery show, invokes a different tradition entirely—the folk-art tradition. This view accepts that snapshot photography can’t simply be equated with high-art photography, as apparently it can’t. Nor is it just some demotic effusion: in some hands at least, it has to be called a humble art. Just as talented wielders of paintbrushes and chisels clearly exist outside the high-art traditions, there must be talented people with cameras. That sounds persuasive, but do actual snapshots, however striking they may sometimes be, really bear comparison with the work of folk painters and sculptors?
Snapshots as art photography (in a way still to be clarified) versus snapshots as popular or folk art: this is the great philosophical divide within the field at the moment. It seems rather amazing that something so fundamental is still unclear. What are these things, and what aesthetic value do they have? Plainly no one really knows.
Snapshot photographers were tolerant
I became interested in snapshots as an untapped source of surprising images. This source was “untapped” for my purposes because its own purposes were quite different: a certain effort of reinterpretation was required in order to appreciate them the way I appreciated them. For me, in other words, the fact that snapshots were not art photographs was essential. The same reinterpretation—a kind of contextual twist that I’ll talk more about later—provided some of the “surprise,” but the rest derived from the properties of snapshots themselves. Consider Fig. 1 as a first example:
Although an art photographer could in principle produce this image, it strikes me as intrinsically “snapshotty” (and from here on in I’ll use this word without quotation marks), not just because it has the defining technical qualities I mentioned, but because of its loose execution—because of a certain arbitrary element, as I’ll call it, that has been allowed a prominent place. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to take a photo like Fig. 1. And, of course, in an important sense no one did. The snapshooter presumably had something in mind, and this picture may well have been close enough—yet something else intervened between intention and realization. Whatever it was that happened, we’ll never know what the indistinct objects to the left and right are, or very much about what’s going on in the picture, or even its proper orientation. An art photographer wouldn’t have allowed loose ends like these to create distraction between the idea and its execution. But the same loose ends have introduced some intrigue: my own feeling is that the disconnect between the picture as hard evidence and the picture as insoluble puzzle creates, or amounts to, a kind of depth. I actually like something that the snapshooter didn’t do deliberately and may well not have liked (or even really noticed) in the finished picture. But what I like in an art photograph isn’t there by accident.
So part of what’s snapshotty about snapshots is a degree of latitude in achieving their purpose, which was generally the simple one of putting the subject in a picture. This slight interesting wobble survived just because it never really bothered anyone—or if it did, it was still beside the point. In general, the intended purpose of snapshots (unlike that of art photos) was easily achieved. Even with imperfections, they still did what the people who pointed the cameras and clicked the shutters meant them to do. In sum, that looseness of snapshots, the measure of arbitrariness they permit, is due to something about their purpose: namely, its tolerance. The anonymity of snapshots and all the other defining qualities I mentioned also follow directly from their purpose. Snapshots weren’t made to hang on walls. Snapshots were made to memorialize their subjects. So when we do hang them on walls, what are we doing? That’s the question I want to answer.
Snapshots just came out that way
Snapshooters tolerated accident, but the snapshot process actively encouraged it. When cheap equipment first democratized photography, Kodak bet, correctly, that the public would accept poor control over the end product in exchange for ease of use. Imperfections were inherent in snapshot photography from the start: in addition to the casual technique of the snapshooters, the simple cameras and processing farmed out to labs held to no particular standard meant that the result was always somewhat hit-or-miss. Accidents will happen, and their effect on the existing snapshot corpus can be seen today because they encountered little resistance from the loose standards of the snapshooters. So: the snapshot process generated a certain amount of arbitrariness, which, submitted to the lenient eye of the snapshooters, tended to survive. Both these steps are unique to snapshots. Except when influenced by snapshot photography, art photography doesn’t generate significant arbitrariness; and except when influenced by snapshot photography, art photographers don’t like it.
The contemporary eye for snapshots (“we,” I’ll continue to call it) actually loves those accidents that the snapshot process created and the snapshooters permitted. Most often they spoil a picture from our point of view, but they can also make a picture. There are felicitous accidents of content, of composition, of processing, and of history: accidents to do with what got into a picture (the child’s presumably momentary adult expression in Fig. 2), how the picture was framed (the five pictorial elements, some in motion, of Fig. 3), how the picture was realized as an object (the double exposure of Fig. 4), and what happened to it later (the painterly emulsion crazing in Fig. 5). In short, productive accidents can happen at every stage in the life of a snapshot. There are many unclear or compound cases such as Fig. 1, which is so mysterious that we can only speculate about how the image came to be.
However, in many more cases it’s not enough to say that we’re seeing something the snapshooter didn’t intend. We’re seeing something the snapshooter didn’t see:
Or: we’re seeing what the snapshooter saw, but differently. We’re not distracted by personal relationships with the subjects, and we’ve been permanently distracted by the art photography of our own era: the context we supply is just a different one, and we can’t help giving a metaphorical reading or responding emotionally to a photo of someone waving goodbye to the United States, or a faceless woman in what might almost be an attitude of despondency on Christmas morning, or a man and a woman looking past each other. I used the word “reinterpretation” earlier, but what we’re doing can’t actually be called that if it means we’re claiming that what we see in these pictures is actually there. We’re just enjoying their resemblance to one sort of photo while being fully aware that they’re really another sort of photo. As with the frank accidents, what’s of interest to us wouldn’t have interested the snapshooters. And of course the fact that these pictures do interest us, among all those that don’t, is a kind of accident too. They happen to fit into the context in which pictures have meaning for us, now, today. We are more or less ignoring whatever is left of the original context.
But the apparent point of interest for the snapshooter can coincide with the point of interest for us: it’s possible for us to think we see what the snapshooter saw, and agree that it’s interesting. Although snapshots tend not to be (pictorially) self-conscious—this is a large part of what their art-photographer admirers self-consciously try to capture—there are snapshots that someone clearly “saw” as pictures before snapping the shutter (Fig. 9) or even set up (Fig. 10), or that show clear signs of “facture” (Fig. 11).
But of course we can’t know what the snapshooter was trying to do. Yes, pictures like Figs. 9–11 tell us what the snapshooters thought was worth recording. Nevertheless, we don’t usually know what their intention in recording it was, still less if the execution we see corresponds to that intention or is really just another kind of accident. The arbitrariness built into the snapshot process tended to take away any control the snapshooter may have been trying to exert, so that intention didn’t necessarily count for much anyway. So if a picture, even one that was plainly taken with care, possesses the formal qualities we look for (whatever they may be), in most cases it’s hard to conclude that the snapshooter put them there—that someone’s taste or aesthetic discrimination in any form was engaged either before the shutter closed (that is, the snapshooter was trying for the effect) or later (the snapshooter wasn’t trying for it, but liked it). Fig. 9 is a striking little shot, but we don’t know why it was taken or if the snapshooter was pleased with it. It may have been intended as documentation of a commercial display, for example, and may have turned out badly as far as the snapshooter was concerned. In Fig. 10, it’s anyone’s guess what these people were up to or if the photo corresponds to whatever it was the snapshooter wanted. Fig. 11 was undeniably made into a beautiful object by someone, but I can attest that it’s only accidentally beautiful, having chosen it myself from among about a hundred pictures, all in the same format, taken by the same camera, and altered by the same pinking shears, all except this one very ordinary indeed—at least to the sensibility, mine, that found Fig. 11 extraordinary. When snapshots are found in groups, as in this case, a snapshooter’s true intention can become clear. But more pictures by the same hand almost always confirm our suspicion that the one we like just happened to turn out to our taste.
There’s been so much loose talk lately about “creativity” in snapshots that I want to devote another pair of examples to disentangling it from the independent factor of blind luck. One allegedly creative idea with a noticeable presence in snapshots through 1940 or so is the “bigfoot” shot—a severely foreshortened feet-first view of the recumbent subject, Mantegna-style. Compare Figs. 12 and 13.
We may not realize it if we see it alone, artificially isolated in a gallery setting, but Fig. 12 is a drop in the bucket of more ordinary shots like Fig. 13. The “creativity” is responsible for the stunt, not the photo; the photo as a photo—all its formal properties, including the vital “production values” that may or may not suit us or make us want to look carefully at anything in it—just came out that way. A photographically extraordinary bigfoot shot is just as fortuitous an occurrence as any other extraordinary snapshot. More broadly, a “creative” snapshot (and I include the mirror and shadow shots beloved of some) will almost never be anything special, but when it is, its “creativity” isn’t ultimately what makes it that way.
Even if we give the snapshooter full credit for whatever camera skills could escape being neutralized by primitive snapshot equipment and feel confident that we know what a photo was for, the reading we’re drawn to give it will still be radically divorced from the original intention. To see this, we can consider examples that we can assume are roughly the same in respect of technical purposefulness and intention, yet are quite different in effect.
These three pictures have essentially the same subject, and we can guess that they were taken in something like the same spirit. But we feel them quite differently. To my eye, Fig. 14 forces a campy or nostalgic reading that is less clear in Fig. 15 and excluded in Fig. 16. These interpretations are both wholly unintended and so strongly there that they seem inherent, though they are not. The format and color process of Fig. 14 suggest an era which has become the locus of a certain kind of corniness for us. Fig. 15, in its symmetry and slight artificiality, together with the bland perfection of the subjects, approaches a kind of iconicity or abstraction. A similar abstraction in Fig. 16, and a powerful accidental mood, come from the lighting and the distance of the camera from the subjects. I’ll say it again, because it’s important: same presumed intention, different effect. All ultimately because of factors that the snapshooters weren’t interested in or that were unimaginable to them. They didn’t try or had no way to control every variable the way art photographers do, and our readings have determinants they never considered.
Snapshot arbitrariness means that unintended effects, large or small, are the rule. They can be the whole reason we like a picture, yet at the same time be so subtle that we are as unaware of them as the snapshooters were. Now if our readings depend on impersonal contingencies, as they generally do, what we impute to the person of a snapshooter can go only so far. We can give the snapshooter credit for the existence of a photo, even for what’s in it—but not for the way we read it, and hence not for its value to us. The aesthetic properties of the picture—everything that drew us to it—are in some sense a misinterpretation. What we see may be due (at least in part) to the agency of the snapshooter, and yet it can’t be called the snapshooter’s considered work. The reason that a snapshooter, unlike, let’s say, a painter, can produce unconsidered work is of course that it needn’t take any thought or effort to make a photograph—which is the ultimate reason most of the snapshots we like exist at all.
I have no doubt that a naïve art photography, whatever we may want to call it, can exist. The work of Morton Bartlett, for example, goes in that category if anyone’s does, and I’ve often felt that O. Winston Link’s belongs in it too. But we can’t think of snapshots that way, because there’s usually no good reason to view them as the considered work of the people who made them. Whether set up like Bartlett’s and Link’s pictures, posed, or taken on the fly, snapshots undeniably fashioned by a snapshooter are exceedingly rare. So it can only be a mistake to consider snapshots in any real sense a naïve or primitive or popular or folk art, if that means we have to attribute what we value in them to the snapshooters. In most cases a snapshot we value is just one that, for one reason or another, looks good to us.
When we find a snapshot remarkable today, we simply don’t care how it came about. We don’t require that it be demonstrable naïve or primitive or popular or folk art, if those terms have any meaning: no snapshot show to date has met, or, deep down, been interested in that standard, not even the National Gallery show. That show includes hundreds of beautiful pictures, some of which at least look like they know they’re beautiful and others of which don’t. It mixes relatively subtle accidents and decontextualizations with patent ones. That would be fine, but the whole point of the show, suggested even by its title, “The Art of the American Snapshot,” is that snapshot photographers are unheralded naïve or primitive or popular or folk artists. The less subtle accidents and decontextualizations don’t support that idea, and the subtler ones don’t either. I’ve looked at many hundreds of thousands of snapshots. Although I’ve often seen snapshots that could be called beautiful, and sometimes ones whose beauty is in some sense the snapshooter’s doing, I’ve almost never encountered an indubitable artist, even under a charitable definition. And those rare cases are a dog on its hind legs: absolutely not snapshotty.
Snapshot artists are not a logical impossibility, but they are next to impossible to discern—to make out on the evidence of the snapshots. And the medium would not have been a friendly one to begin with. The same snapshot arbitrariness that produced a few happy accidents but mostly unhappy ones would have been simply lack of control to an artist trying to wield the medium. Further: a hypothetical artist who embraced the funkiness of the form would have been an anachronism for most of the snapshot period.
Even evidence that snapshooters were able to appreciate pictures that we appreciate is very hard to come by. I’ve often seen flashy double exposures like Fig. 4 pasted without comment into otherwise boring photo albums. Sometimes people will write “Double exposure” or “This one didn’t come out” underneath. But I’ve never seen “Wow!” or the equivalent. More generally, the subject of a photo often gets some comment in the album or on the back (“Some punkins!” or “Not a good one of me”), but the photo itself is rarely discussed in aesthetic terms that we recognize.
The recent term “vernacular photography” as applied to snapshots is another symptom of the wish to consider them naïve or primitive or popular or folk art. The term was coined by analogy with “vernacular architecture” or “vernacular music,” but the analogy is weak. We don’t have to reinterpret vernacular architecture or vernacular music to find something of interest. Vernacular architecture is made by architects, vernacular music by musicians; but the people who took the snapshots that we like may simply have snapped the shutters of their cameras.
To sum up this rather long section: it’s misrepresenting the contemporary interest in snapshot photography to say it’s an interest in the naïve art of the snapshooters. But in any case there’s precious little demonstrable artistic intention to be seen in snapshot photography. Snapshot arbitrariness makes whatever intention there may have been mostly indistinguishable from accident.
The snapshot phenomenon has produced skeptics, who, unless I’m mistaken, are largely worried about issues of artistic intention and intention generally. At this point we can begin to answer some of the questions that may have arisen in their minds.
Images in snapshot shows and books, and the ones you’ve been showing us here, seem to combine intentional and unintentional effects. Sometimes the point of interest could be intentional, but more often it couldn’t. Isn’t this sheer confusion? As I’ve suggested, it’s usually difficult to say straightforwardly that we like a snapshot because we like what the snapshooter was doing. Rather, we like a snapshot because it is a snapshot and because of what got into it, which the snapshooter may or may not have had much to do with. No confusion yet: the distinction between intended and unintended is just not a salient one. Confusion enters if we start thinking of the entire category of snapshot photography as naïve or primitive or popular or folk art of some sort. Then we truly have lost sight of the fact that much of what we like clearly wasn’t produced deliberately and that most of the rest wasn’t clearly produced deliberately. We’ve called attention to the distinction between intended and unintended, only to ignore it ourselves.
Do we have to accept unintended effects in snapshots? Yes. Unintended effects of all kinds are inherent in snapshots: the intention of the snapshooter only weakly determines the outcome.
Aren’t unintended effects worthless? Unintended effects are worthless only if we don’t accept found objects.
Snapshots are found objects
It’s necessary to face up to certain truths about snapshots. Although it’s sometimes fair to see in snapshots the kinds of things we look for in art photographs, it’s almost never fair to see in snapshot photographers the kinds of things we look for in art photographers. If we value these photographs, we value them for our own reasons. The snapshooters may have pressed the button, but we do the rest.
Snapshots are found objects in the tradition established by Marcel Duchamp in 1914. The fact that a snapshot is a photograph, whereas a bottle rack isn’t a sculpture, may have made this difficult to recognize.
Duchamp’s Bottle Rack presents us with a beautiful object, and the piece would be less interesting if it didn’t—if it didn’t suggest sculpture, and a pretty classy kind of sculpture at that (this fact about Duchamp’s readymades is sometimes forgotten). And it would certainly be less interesting if it actually were sculpture. Bottle Rack shows us the sculptural qualities of something found in a hardware store, asks us if it matters that the object wasn’t intended as art at all, and establishes the finder’s own “intention.” In the same way, an exceptional snapshot shows us the photographic qualities of something found in a junk store or a photo album in a flea market, asks us if it matters that the photo wasn’t intended as art at all, and establishes the finder’s own “intention.”
The point of Bottle Rack isn’t to find something of value in amateur work; the bottle rack wasn’t made by an amateur of any kind. Rather, Bottle Rack uses an object made by a non-artist to point out the power of context. Similarly, snapshots are absolutely not “amateur photography”: they don’t aspire to be anything but what they are. It isn’t the snapshooters but we who are aware of art photography and are trying to place snapshots in a fine-art context.
The industrial designer responsible for the bottle rack would have a right to be mystified or outraged by what Duchamp did with it—it would be quite a mistake to be pleased by the attention, because it’s focused not on the design solution, but on decontextualized aesthetics. Likewise, what we admire in a snapshot may well be due to purposeful activity by someone at some point in its history, yet it would be wrong to say that we are simply appreciating that work for what it is. Supposing that they could see their pictures on the walls of a museum, I imagine very few snapshot photographers wouldn’t feel in one way or another that a category mistake was being made (once they got through being furious at the misappropriation, the callousness, and the invasion of privacy).
The bottle rack gains by being the star of Bottle Rack. It was just a bottle rack before, but now it’s Bottle Rack. In the same way, snapshots gain by being wrenched from their context. Our noticing them improves them—even creates them, in a sense. But we can never forget where they came from. Where they came from is something we like about them. It’s part of the point, the way the source of Bottle Rack is part of its point.
Bottle Rack is a complex object, half real and half abstract: half bottle rack and half “bottle rack,” where the quotation marks are the unseen pedestal, Duchamp himself drawing our attention to the (delicately judged but undeniable) beauty of the bottle rack that is the material of the piece. It wouldn’t have been Duchamp’s style to try so hard or belabor the obvious or do much more than make a point, but he could have amassed enough readymades to demonstrate that, in aggregate, found materials can begin to suggest a distinctive aesthetic. He almost did that—not quite. Snapshot collectors do it, and it may be all they do that Duchamp didn’t do long ago. Snapshot collectors embrace foundness: it’s so much a part of their enterprise that they may not be aware of it. For them, snapshots are simply a source of images. Within that pool, their own taste can stake out a territory.
It may or may not succeed in doing so. All too often, snapshots in galleries are no more than pictures of people cutting up for the camera, given a superficial arty gloss by their foundness. Snapshots can be kitsch or camp or nostalgia—not even much of a comment on any of those, yet clearly supposed to be something greater on the strength of mere decontextualization. The fact that a photo like Fig. 15, the quasi‑campy forties couple in armchairs, can be interpreted in any number of ways, some more serious than others, makes the point once again that the photo plus the eye that found it constitute the piece, just as the bottle rack plus the eye that found it constitute Bottle Rack. Equally, snapshots in galleries can be, beneath their foundness, trite art photos—“bird in flight” shots that might never pass muster as the work of artists. It’s up to us to find something interesting in the pool of snapshots.
If snapshots are found objects, we can still acknowledge the snapshooters, at least sometimes. We’re not always taking everything away from them. A snapshot can still be something created with care, just as a readymade can be an industrial article that was designed and constructed with eyes wide open. But if we say that snapshots are naïve or primitive or popular or folk art, we can’t have an image whose point of interest is entirely accidental.
Again, the idea that snapshots are found objects has the consequence that finders can disagree about them: it allows the range of incompatible angles on the pool of snapshot material that we in fact see, and it allows none of them to claim priority. But the idea that snapshots are naïve or primitive or popular or folk art demands that snapshots be judged as naïve or primitive or popular or folk art.
There’s no way to say that a snapshot actually is an art photo, any more than an industrial article produced for utilitarian purposes like a bottle rack can be sculpture. The two belong to different realms. We’re just playing with the resemblance.
Almost a century later, we are so much in Duchamp’s shadow that we don’t always see Duchampian projects for what they are, even when they’re our own. By the same token, of course, found objects today aren’t very revolutionary. They are simply part of the contemporary art scene, and even extend a bit beyond it now. Modern-day antiques sometimes have a “found” element; the kinds of objects collected by Roger Ricco and Frank Maresca of the Ricco/Maresca Gallery (riccomaresca.com) exemplify this trend. Josh Lowenfels (joshualowenfels.com) and John Foster (accidentalmysteries.blogspotcom) have related tastes. In photography, the photo projects of Diane Keaton are utterly Duchampian. Keaton collects and exhibits “lost” commercial photography, giving it a severe twist through her very personal selection and presentation. Most recently, for example, Bill Wood’s Business, a quite wonderful collection, brings together some three hundred 1950s-era photos by a Fort Worth commercial photographer. There is no hint in the accompanying text by Keaton and Marvin Heiferman that anyone wants to recognize Keaton’s effort in selecting and framing the material to give it the impact that it has.
To return to the concerns of snapshot skeptics:
What is it to “get” snapshots? Why doesn’t everyone get them? Getting snapshots means accepting (and reveling in) found objects as a source of photographic images. Obviously this involves an extra-photographic, conceptual step that not everyone interested in photography is willing to take.
Snapshots are objects
Found objects are objects, and snapshots are objects. They’re not just images.
As a way into this idea, I note first that most people with a feeling for snapshots aren’t interested in cropped photos of any era. Cropped photos are usually thought to be irredeemably damaged (it was a near thing in Fig. 11).
Connoisseurs sometimes insist on silly things, like intact pull tabs on Polaroids, for example. But the preference for uncropped photos is not a connoisseur’s dogma. Consider this example:
The image alone actually has less oomph than the same image with a border. How can that be? How can that quarter-inch of white paper make any difference? The border locks in the dimensions of the snapshot, so to speak, subliminally convincing us that the framing is “authentic”: as we look at the picture, we are instantly taken back to the moment the snapshooter framed the shot. Thus a snapshot with borders has a certain historical depth that a cropped photo has sacrificed.
Otherwise put, a snapshot as an object—as something with substance and dimensions, something that exists in space—has a historical density that a snapshot as a mere image doesn’t have. A cropped snapshot has been compromised as an object, turned (at least to some extent) into a mere image.
As an object, a snapshot inevitably ages, whereas an abstract image is perpetually new. Snapshots age like antiques: all other things being equal, one in top condition is nice, but a certain amount of weathering is simply the nature of the beast, and in rare cases age, damage, or defacement adds something or is even the point of interest. I find the case of defacement particularly potent, because deliberate violence done to a snapshot takes it beyond aesthetics. Someone had a reason for making the following mysterious scribble, for example, and the viewer is forced to think about what it was:
Here the surface of the concrete object has picked up a layer of history that an abstract image, which has no surface, would have no way of showing; the viewer’s response is accordingly that much more complex. To one degree or another the physical age of every snapshot—the tangible accretion of incident between the time of its making and the present—gives it a subtle documentary weight that an image considered as an abstraction can’t have.
Although any kind of physical photo can be old and worn, age and wear are snapshotty. Snapshots have “suffered” more than most photos, because they tend to be undervalued and neglected. This is so overwhelmingly true that variable condition just can’t be separated from snapshot aesthetics. I am always bemused to see museum and gallery shows full of pristine snapshots. It seems to me that the curators have simply failed to understand this aspect of what snapshots are about.
Collectors are usually as uninterested in recent photos as they are in cropped ones. The cutoff point is generally the end of the Kodacolor era, when borderless snapshot prints came into style—roughly 1980 (the National Gallery’s show includes examples through 1978, for example). Why is that? I believe the borderlessness of recent snapshots is the key. Snapshots that never had borders always were a bit more like images, a bit less like objects, than snapshots with borders.
Polaroids, interesting in so many ways, can serve as a test case, it seems to me. Polaroids always have borders and thus retain their integrity as objects into the modern era. They should also retain their charm as snapshots beyond the point where borderless prints lose some of theirs, and I think they do.
Snapshots are found instants
Snapshots constitute a record of the moment of their making, as do documentary photos of any kind. But the record is always at least a little illegible in the case of snapshots. Consider the following:
The questions in our minds will never be answered. To be sure, these are extreme cases, but to one degree or another snapshots are always opaque. They were never designed to be clear, or to mean anything to us at all. Snapshots are founded on intimacy, but it’s someone else’s intimacy: just as a diary can be obscure because we can’t be expected to know everything and everyone the diarist knows, the snapshooters weren’t taking their pictures with us in mind and didn’t take care to orient us. What I’m calling their arbitrariness puts still more in our way: the snapshooters weren’t bothered by a certain degree of irrelevance, distraction, and lack of clarity. This very snapshotty opacity is often emulated by straight documentary photographers, but it can’t easily be reproduced. An answer that is withheld is very different from an answer that is lost. The latter is a mystery, the former only mystification. The difference, I believe, is something we can’t help but feel.
A snapshot represents a moment about which, ordinarily, we know only as much as the snapshot itself tells us. It’s not only a found event, but a found instant—the context is gone. To the extent that we find ourselves wanting to know more, we’ll be tantalized forever. My own view is that snapshots gain by being frustrating, because the imagination is engaged to complete the story.
Snapshots are ordinary, except for a few
In thinking about snapshots, we’re always dealing with very large numbers and very small ones: with great quantities and minute probabilities. Snapshots that manage to appeal to the modern eye exist in meaningful volume only because the pool they’re drawn from is truly vast. Although different people focus on different things in that pool, I’m quite sure that almost all snapshots are of no conceivable interest to anyone but those with a personal relationship to the snapshooter. However, the degree of arbitrariness I mentioned at the beginning, operating over a huge number of pictures, will inevitably produce some few that others can appreciate. But surely, one might object, there will be pictures that are just intrinsically interesting—that didn’t need mathematics to make them what they are. As I’ve suggested, the trouble is that, no matter what’s going on in a snapshot, it still needs to have exceptional formal qualities in order for us to notice it today. And when such qualities occur in a picture, most of the time it’s very difficult indeed to believe that the snapshooter took an interest in them.
Should this bother us? What could snapshots be about if not what the snapshooters meant them to be about? We might easily feel that if we let ourselves get interested in things the snapshooters didn’t care about, we’ll wind up missing the essence of the snapshot. We’ll be drifting into some abstract realm and away from snapshottiness. Remember Fig. 4, the radical double exposure—clearly a one-in-a-million object whose point of interest has nothing to do either with the real people shown in the picture or with the real person who took it. Should we reject extreme cases like this and concentrate on pictures as ordinary, as banal, as utterly empty as the average snapshot actually is? Followed scrupulously, this course will throw the baby out with the bathwater. Consider Figs. 23 and 24.
Although these pictures have the same mundane and very snapshotty subject, a man in his front yard, only Fig. 24 is a photo that actually bears looking at. The problem is that it’s a freak shot: a picture taken a fraction of a second earlier or later wouldn’t have caught the subject’s off-balance stance (his awkwardness accentuated by his ill-fitting suit) against the deep suburban vista. In fact anything we’d look twice at will be some sort of freak shot. “Typical” and “interesting as a photo” just can’t apply to the same snapshot.
The solution to the puzzle is that mundane subjects are snapshotty, but statistical flukes are also snapshotty—in the sense that they wouldn’t even exist without that very snapshotty element of arbitrariness at the root of it all.
What could be the difference between one of your stochastic novelty pictures and the mathematically improbable image of Jesus on a tortilla? It’s not unreasonable to object that the quasi-Darwinian survival-of-the-oddest I’ve described—random variation encouraged by photographic technique, statistical anomalies created, statistical anomalies not rejected by tolerant snapshooter, individual statistical anomaly eventually recognized by happy collector—will inevitably produce curiosities as meaningless as a Jesus-like face found on a tortilla. One answer to this is that if cooking tortillas on griddles reliably created pictures as aesthetically compelling as snapshots can be, then there would be good reason to take the results seriously. Those pictures would be found objects, of course, and “meaningful” in the way found objects are. Another answer is that even the freakiest photo isn’t a random array of exposed silver halide grains, like the randomly darkened spots on a tortilla. A snapshot always documents something. A snapshot is real.
Snapshots are real
We trust what a snapshot tells us, whereas we may not trust what Sebastião Salgado tells us no matter how loudly and artfully he says it. Even when a snapshot is baffling, like Fig. 22, we trust it in the sense that we know a real event is somehow behind the image. Otherwise it wouldn’t be baffling. In more ordinary cases too, there’s really no such thing as a tendentious snapshot. We take it for what it is. Where does that trust come from? Again because of its intimacy and its arbitrariness, a snapshot automatically brings us closer to the action documented than a documentary art photo could do. In most cases we’re viscerally aware that there’s less photographer—less aesthetic or other agenda—between the photograph and us. It never crossed the snapshooter’s mind that we might come along and look at the picture, so we never had a chance to influence the very private transaction between the snapshooter and the subject; the product of that transaction, like an overheard conversation, is something we can take at face value precisely because we realize it wasn’t intended for us. The picture can’t lie to us because it doesn’t know about us. It can speak to us convincingly because it isn’t speaking to us directly; we accept the intimacy of its register because we aren’t a party to it. And its lack of artfulness only increases its documentary impact: all the arbitrary details that an artist wouldn’t have tolerated bring it home to us that the photograph is “real.” The things in the photo that clearly don’t mean anything lead us to conclude, without having consciously considered the matter, that the photo isn’t a vehicle for meaning—for any kind of argument on the part of the snapshooter. And that’s why it has room for the meaning we give it.
We said that a snapshot is both an image and an old object. And we said that an object that is obviously old testifies to the moment of its making much more strongly than a mere image (in whatever medium), because it quite palpably dates from that moment (or thereabouts). It was there, so to speak. Is there any other kind of recorded representation of the past that becomes more physically potent with age? In an old photo, image and object are fused. An old film (let’s say a home movie) is not quite the same in this respect, because it has to be projected to work on us the way it’s meant to; and at that point image and object are separate. Similarly for an old sound recording (let’s say a shellac disc). An old recording is an object that makes a noise. An old photo is not an object that makes an image. So the age of the object itself is directly bound up with “reading” it only in the case of a photo. And, generally speaking, a snapshot “was there” even more strongly than an ordinary documentary photo was there, because it’s more than just a view. The snapshooter was integrated into the life shown in the picture. The act of taking the picture was part of the life shown in the picture. And that’s evident in the picture itself.
There’s no other form of recording that brings us such an indiscriminate sample of the past. Sound recordings were highly selective and were essentially never made by amateurs. Home movies were functionally comparable to snapshots, yet never really lost their novelty and don’t exist in the billions the way snapshots do now. As undirected, unedited, unself-conscious, and completely veridical slices of the past, snapshots are unmatched. This ought to impress us. If casual sound recordings of ambient sounds and conversations, billions upon billions of them, going back to the mid-nineteenth century, existed today, think how much realer the past would seem to us.
Aren’t snapshots always some sort of exercise in nostalgia? No. I agree completely that nostalgia is something to be avoided, and that snapshot practice often doesn’t manage to avoid it. Nevertheless, though snapshots are generally old, and thus we’re generally dealing with the past in one way or another when we deal with them, it’s still perfectly possible to engage with the past without nostalgia, just as it’s possible to engage with the future without utopianism. We can be interested in the past for its strangeness, for example, or its obscurity. We can be interested in it as a source of information or intrigue. We can like the past because it’s not the present, or because of what it says about the present. Very broadly, a collector’s attitude toward snapshots will mirror (or betray) his or her attitude toward the past. A collector who is nostalgic will have a collection to match. One who isn’t won’t.
Another approach to the nostalgia problem—and in my view it’s a problem that needs to be faced—is to say that snapshots aren't primarily old. They’re primarily found, and age is a “piggyback” property: a frequent but far from exceptionless adjunct of foundness. I favor this solution because I want it to be as clear as possible—I want it to be an unstated message of my collection itself—that I dislike any tinge of adorableness connected with mere age. Age can add a valuable complexity, as I’ve pointed out, but I make an effort to include modern photos in my practice because age in itself is not what I am interested in.
Snapshots can respond to art photography
If snapshots are found objects, we’re free to load up our choices with as many echoes of art photography as we like. We may or may not be interested in this angle. Then again, we may not be able to avoid it.
In their different ways, the three important snapshot exhibitions I mentioned at the beginning were all informed by art photography, although the National Gallery show, conceived as an even-handed survey of snapshot history, couldn’t really own up to the massive influence of art photography on the achievements of the collector and the curator. But every snapshot period has its own art photography. Art photography in turn will affect popular imagery, especially advertising, with the result that we can’t rule out the influence of art photography on the snapshooters themselves at any given snapshot period. It’s reasonable to say that every era has a general photographic “manner.” Now consider the problems posed by an extreme case such as this one.
I chose this example because it’s a beautiful picture and because it owes its beauty to an overt anachronism. The photo might date from the 1920s, but apart from chronological age it’s a contemporary picture—it looks like a pointedly snapshot-influenced art photo of the kind that began to appear in the 1960s and remains relevant today. An accident, of course. Strictly speaking, the National Gallery’s responsible chronology had no room for such a shot, because stylistically it’s an extreme outlier and essentially ahistorical. It contradicts the manner of its time, and a purely fortuitous contradiction isn’t even interesting from a historical point of view. Yet in fact the show included comparable examples.
By contrast, Fig. 26 looks a good deal less anachronistic.
And since the manner of its time (1959, according to the inscription on the back) has almost caught up with it, the picture might not even be a complete accident. But do we really want to get involved in judging, case by case, whether style and picture are a plausible historical match?
Is it even possible to do that? I don’t think we could recognize the subtler effects that modern art photography has had on our eye clearly enough to say we want no part of them. So the idea of somehow getting back to some primeval snapshot untainted by our own high culture seems doomed from the outset. But why try? Our project is a high-culture project. What we’re doing is, precisely, making one tradition rub up against another. Like a readymade, a snapshot occupies two traditions at once. Should Duchamp have worried that it was unfair to find echoes of modern sculpture in anonymously designed hardware?
When we look at snapshots, we inevitably apply a modern eye to the snapshot past. It’s so hopeless to fight this that even a nominally objective project like the National Gallery’s is subjective to this degree. Why does this slippery slope exist with snapshots? The arbitrary element at the root of snapshot variation guarantees that anachronisms will be produced and come down to us; but, finders of found objects that we inevitably are, we’re already committed decontextualizers, and it’s hard for us draw the line at decontextualizations of style even where we think we recognize them.
To a first approximation, as we’ve realized, snapshots don’t have anything to offer a modern eye formed by art photography. How could they? Snapshots are almost all completely boring. Perhaps no one is more aware of this than the collectors who work the bottom of the food chain (not all do)—the collectors who actually see all those utterly dreary snapshots. But we are interested in the exceptions to the rule. Snapshot arbitrariness creates those exceptions, makes it a statistical certainty that what snapshots give us will overlap very slightly with what we are looking for.
That tiny area of overlap depends on the individual eye. An allusive, educated eye was behind SFMOMA’s show. An eye preoccupied by a single style of the past lent the Met show its very recognizable look. It would be perfectly possible to go beyond quotation and imitation and try for something completely distinctive.
A snapshot collector’s eye can be distinctive
Any kind of documentary photography can only be, in large part, an art of selection. The photographer’s experience presents a very large number of possible times and places to snap the shutter, and the photographer chooses a few of them. Then comes a further winnowing, more or less severe depending on the photographer. So the photographer’s job is to turn very many possible pictures into very few actual pictures. The only reason there’s any hope of arriving at something distinctive simply by choosing things is that the universe of possible choices is very large indeed. That way there might be some few that the photographer can be wholehearted about.
A pool of photos already taken by other people could in principle approximate the documentary photographer’s universe of possible choices, provided it’s large and varied enough. Then the body of photos selected could wind up possessing the same kind of personal coherence that the photos surviving a documentary photographer’s selection process can. The pool of snapshots is just such a pool, of course, with billions of examples, most never seen, laid claim to, or interpreted by anyone since their making, and, since it represents the work of untold legions of very different snapshooters, extraordinarily heterogeneous and full of (at various small concentrations) interesting one-of-a-kind effects, puzzles, and unlikely events.
In principle, I said. Anyone who likes this better than that is in one way or another beginning to establish or give evidence of a personal aesthetic. This needn’t rise to the level of much of anything, and generally doesn’t. It rarely does for art photographers, and I know of no more than four or five snapshot collectors with a distinctive eye.
Snapshot collectors form a rough community of interest, whose members study and inevitably soak up each other’s taste. Much as in any artistic community, a strong collector will be able to convince and influence the others. Right now there is a reigning consensus as to what an interesting snapshot is, and it’s an entirely contingent matter: it depends on the collectors who have appeared and how well their tastes have been promulgated. But it’s completely possible that a new collector will emerge who has noticed something in the pool of snapshots that escaped the rest of us—who has opened up new aesthetic territory, and is able to persuade us, through the pictures themselves, of its merit. In fact I guarantee that there will be such collectors. We can’t notice pictures we’re not ready to notice. As modern photographic styles change, we will begin to spot new kinds of pictures among the same old snapshots. Snapshot arbitrariness means that the snapshot pool contains all future styles, at least those that were within the technical means of the snapshot period.
The point that a snapshot collection is all about the collector is obvious enough to the collector. Yet the obvious is now being denied by institutional projects like the National Gallery show that are trying to remove, not the collector, but the evidence of the collector’s eye, from the enterprise.
The only real response to a show is another show. The way to bring the idea home—to make it convincing automatically, with no need for the kind of argument I’ve been making here—would be to have a show or book contrasting the radically (or at least maximally) different “visions” of three or four different collectors. Nothing like it has been done yet.
Your idea is that snapshot collectors and art photographers aren’t very far apart. What do art photographers think of snapshots, anyway? Many have long since absorbed the snapshot look, but that doesn’t mean they’ve accepted the existence of a respectable photographic folk art running parallel to their own. And of course they’re right not to. A jazz musician might take a respectful interest in rock-and-roll, for example, but that’s not the same thing at all. Rock-and-roll really is music, in every sense, whereas snapshots are not art in every sense. But unfortunately the current scene seems to be drifting toward an assumption that snapshots are popular art. Snapshots can be used to make a coherent statement in the manner of a body of art photos, but I’d imagine that few photographers have seen it done.
I believe no other kind of found object lends itself quite so readily to making a coherent statement. The possibilities of the pool depend on the factors I’ve mentioned. It has to be huge and diverse, so that a sufficiently energetic search could in principle turn up essentially anything. The objects have to have expressive potential, as photographs do. It also helps if the objects are cheap and available.
If you want to take a picture, why not take a picture? Why sort through hundreds of thousands of snapshots to find one picture that you could have taken directly? Aren’t you going the long way around? As I’ve said, there’s a great deal about snapshots that can’t be duplicated in an art photo. Snapshots never stop being snapshots; finding them doesn’t turn them into art photos. The process is indeed very labor-intensive, but it has its appeal. I frankly find it soothing and yet stimulating to work through a box that might contain several thousand pictures, hoping to find something of interest. It’s a comfortable and potentially rewarding aesthetic exercise, like looking for the perfect present for someone you know will be able to appreciate it. The search for just the right pre-happened event is also a way of harnessing accident, which artists have probably always tried to do. (Chance events were deliberately exploited by the Surrealists; Francis Bacon, in his interviews with David Sylvester, is eloquent on the subject of courting accident.) Finally, arriving at an image by finding it in an anonymous snapshot has a certain psychological utility; the oblique approach can be freeing. The image you find is, in a certain literal sense, not yours, and to simplify your life you can tell yourself you have nothing to do with it. Everything I’ve said here goes to show that’s a lie, and yet it’s a generous, harmless, and above all practical lie, whose only consequence is to help you probe your own mind without thinking too much about it. Harmless, that is, as long as you don’t believe it. To believe that finding snapshots is like finding fossils, let’s say, or antiquities—to believe that the finder may have found them, but, once found, they lead an independent existence—this goes well beyond permitting yourself a useful fiction. A snapshot always needs an interpreter.
We give our own interpretation to the snapshot record
The great pool of snapshots as a whole needs an interpreter too: no one is really interested in unedited snapshots, except as source material. No matter how we think of our enterprise, we inevitably produce an edit, and the edit isn’t just a miniature version of the larger body of photos. Here’s an example of what I mean.
Babies are very likely the single most popular subject of snapshots in the wild. I’ve often seen entire albums devoted to babies (or, more poignantly, albums whose last seven-eighths are devoted to babies, following a few shots of Niagara Falls). But we don’t care about babies. Actually, we don’t like babies: our snapshot shows and books exclude them pretty much entirely. The reason is that we are afraid of sentimentality, as artists are: artists who can use babies unsentimentally are rare. We are ruthless in banishing babies even though the snapshooters themselves weren’t usually sentimentalists. Somehow it seems beside the point that, in their original context, baby pictures were generally businesslike and documentary in spirit, just as much as travel pictures or any other snapshot genre.
There are exceptions to our bias against babies, but they prove the rule: baby pictures so dark that they overpower the sentimentality problem or in effect comment on it. The National Gallery show included a photo of a baby with a pack of cigarettes, for example. Here’s another approach:
In sum, the snapshooters loved babies, but we don’t, and we have badly warped the snapshot corpus to suit our own tastes—our own aesthetic, if you like. The National Gallery show, whose avowed mission is to represent the snapshot corpus without distortion, distorts it as much as anyone else. The baby example could be multiplied indefinitely. For every snapshot show or book or collection, we can imagine a statistical profile of favored genres—a pie-chart breakdown, let’s say. A similar breakdown of the snapshot record as a whole (or, since the “snapshot record as a whole” is unknowable, of any sufficiently large and indiscriminate sample of it) would always look very different. It essentially doesn’t matter to us what the snapshooters were really doing with their pictures. We select and reject them for our own reasons.
The snapshot phenomenon
Mug shots, photobooth portraits, crime photos, pinups, and other genres of non-art photography—“vernacular” in the current terminology—have attracted increasing attention in recent years. I believe snapshots were first on the scene by far, however. It’s probably fair to say that, in order to see anything of value in snapshots, we first had to be educated by the art photographers who analyzed and used the snapshot look. Although individual art photographers have always noticed snapshots, the snapshot style didn’t make serious inroads until the great efflorescence of snapshot-like work of the 1960s. And in fact the very first snapshot collections began appearing soon thereafter, in the mid-1970s. The style that they incorporated was “found” in the Duchampian sense, and what they drew our attention to was a class of photographic found objects. I’ve suggested that what we are doing with snapshots belongs with the found-object tradition. I’m not sure the same is equally true of the other kinds of “vernacular photography.” How much of a contextual twist are we giving to pinups, for example? In any case, we know that the term “vernacular photography” doesn’t fit snapshots very well.
Vernacular photography and particularly snapshots have lately been bracketed with “outsider art” (to use another fashionable term). It’s not entirely clear that this is much more than a marriage of marketing convenience. Outsider art, the most recent incarnation of a category that goes back to Art Brut, embodies some profoundly Romantic assumptions: to put it crudely, that civilization is a kind of contamination and that it’s possible to be “outside” it. So social marginality in an artist means purity of artistic attitude, the underlying thinking goes, and the more marginal the artist, the more sought after the art (all other things being equal). No one romanticizes snapshot photographers, fortunately, but the idea that they are naïve, or at the very least highly unofficial artists of one sort or another, is widespread. So there’s no doubt that the broader curatorial or critical or marketing category is unpleasantly patronizing at heart. It has to do with “self” and “other”—with recognizing or absorbing work that we implicitly consider less sophisticated than “ours.” Not only is it patronizing, it’s also a form of sentimentality, unless I’m mistaken: setting up an artificially simple art and locating it outside ourselves is a way of avoiding complexity in our response.
Above-ground expressions of snapshot collecting are far more recent than recognition of what is currently called outsider art, and the interpretation of snapshots as some species of popular art more recent still. So whatever it is that has brought snapshots and outsider art together, it’s not their shared history. In any case, snapshots considered as found objects don’t belong with outsider art. We can accept snapshot photographers as observers, as documenters of their time, as people having fun with cameras; but it’s generally quite impossible to think of them as unpolished artists.
The important case of Jim Shaw’s Thrift Store Paintings bears comparison both with outsider art and with current snapshot practice. Thrift Store Paintings is a personal collection of found paintings that were exhibited in 1991 as a single work under Shaw’s name. The pictures caught his eye for their “weirdness,” as he put it: the ideas are arresting or strange or pathological, the executions those of people who couldn’t fairly be called artists. Some of the paintings try to be kitschy, but they don’t even get that far: their deficiencies go beyond those of mere taste. If the viewer needs armor to look at kitsch, even heavier armor is needed for Thrift Store Paintings. The piece is ironic, in a word. Our response is, again and again, the same uneasy laughter.
We don’t look at outsider art ironically. We may look down on it (or out at it), but it’s still the work of artists, unlike the paintings that make up Thrift Store Paintings. And no one is using it to construct an aesthetic, as Shaw does in his piece. So the paintings of Thrift Store Paintings aren’t outsider art, and the piece as a whole isn’t outsider art either.
It’s much closer to what collectors are doing with snapshots. I could fill a room with snapshots precisely analogous to the paintings of Thrift Store Paintings: with cluelessness, corniness, and grotesquerie—misguided projects and unfortunate self-revelations of all kinds. But I could construct other aesthetics too, into which irony needn’t enter. Snapshots don’t have to be ironic. There are snapshots that we can feel are remarkable photos without hiding behind irony of any kind, and we can assemble groups of remarkable snapshots to build up a coherent aesthetic. How about thrift store paintings—do they have to be looked at ironically? The pool of thrift store paintings is tiny compared to the pool of snapshots, so it would just be a lot harder to find something that we can feel is straightforwardly, unironically remarkable (though I’m sure it’s been done more than once), never mind find enough examples to assemble a coherent aesthetic with them.
Shaw’s piece ultimately makes us think about painting—both as a category and as an activity—and about standards, and it has tremendous documentary force: whatever else they may do to us, the pictures give us evidence of minds at work, so that we are forced to imagine (painfully) armies of real painters who are not real artists, all trying and failing in more or less the same way. In most of these respects snapshots are comparable. We always think about art photography in connection with snapshots—probably we wouldn’t care about them at all if we weren’t in some sense comparing the two categories and titillated by the difference in legitimacy. And snapshots take us back quite irresistibly to the moment of their making. The one difference is that snapshots needn’t be painful to look at. They bring us into the lives of the people who made them, so powerfully that we may sometimes feel we are going beyond the limits of discretion, but we don’t usually have to feel sorry for anyone.
Thrift Store Paintings consists wholly of a collection of found objects: the collection is the piece. This may be the most notable thing about it. There is some precedent for a coherent artistic statement as an emergent property of a collection. It’s unusual, though, because the objects collected can’t be Fiestaware and they can’t be works already in the canon: they have to be complex enough, yet still indeterminate enough (at least before the collection brings them into focus), that they can be used to embody an artistic viewpoint. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) and Raymond Queneau’s Aux confins des ténèbres (1934), a collection of “found science” or crank theories, are two examples that come to mind. I believe that snapshot collectors, in one way or another, more or less consciously, with greater or lesser success, are striving for something similar in their collections.
An image is an image
Snapshots can be put to use by people interested in nostalgia, in one aspect or another of history or social history, in photography, or in art projects going beyond photography: I believe that more or less exhausts the range of possibilities (they can overlap). If we’re interested in snapshots as more than a source of information—if we’re letting our eye guide us—we can’t help turning them into found objects. A rock found on the beach is one thing to a geologist, another to someone who just likes the way it looks.
Snapshots seen in isolation used to be called found photos, a phrase clearly meant to suggest an analogy with the Duchampian found object. I don’t know who coined the term, and I don’t know why it’s gone out of fashion—but unlike the recent nomenclature it gets the emphasis right: on what we are doing. An art photo found in a flea market was originally an art photo too; there’s no sense in which we’re enlisting it as material. We’ve retained its context. But we can’t help losing the original context in which snapshots made sense, if only because we never had it. That’s a great deal of their mystique, in fact—they’re weighty, laden with the past, but it’s someone else’s past, a real but opaque past. In their original context they were a private, fitfully “creative” affair—creative in the sense that scrapbooking or devising a practical joke might be called that. The activity of the snapshooters wasn’t meaning-bearing the way art is meaning-bearing, but only more locally. These pictures represented transactions not between the snapshooters and us, but between the snapshooters and their own families and friends. If the pictures they took then catch our eye now, we may kid ourselves that all we’re doing is picking up what’s there, but clearly that’s not true. The largely personal value that these pictures originally had is lost forever, along with all those persons who attached it to them. What we’ve found is something else, something of value to us.
Snapshot collectors are quite ruthless about claiming personal value. The attitude on the ground is, quite simply, that an image is an image. No matter how it came about. The complex object that is a snapshot stands or falls as an image: a photograph whose force the finder can’t reject (and may even be especially open to) just because no one felt it before. The idea was implicit in the Met show of 2000, a very personal production, but, because it needs argument and no one even stated it clearly, I’m sure some people felt it as an unresolved problem and ultimately as an obstacle. The same idea was plain to see in the group of pictures selected for the National Gallery show of 2007. But this time it was expressly contradicted by the intellectual superstructure of the show, which tried to replace the eye of the beholder with that of the snapshooter. Very confusing—all the more so because positioning ourselves as neutral custodians of snapshot history seemed to imply a modern critical consensus. It seemed to imply that we know what a good snapshot is. But in fact we don’t know what a good snapshot is. As someone with an eye for snapshots, I know what I value. I’m never neutral. No one can be. Inevitably, a gallery full of snapshots will not be like a museum’s holdings of name art photography, with their implied canon, but like a gallery show by a single photographer. So for the sake of clarity, at least, the only thing to do is to unequivocally uncouple snapshots from snapshooters and assume responsibility ourselves for the value they have for us. De facto it’s been done already.
The art of the snapshot
At the beginning of this article I mentioned the philosophical divide that has been opened up (or has been revealed) by recent snapshot events—the shows and books where snapshot collecting meets the public and has to stand some kind of test of sense. Generally speaking, collecting by private individuals tends to wind up on one side of that divide—the “fine art” side—and institutional collecting of the kind that is now becoming more widespread tends to wind up on the other—the “folk art” side. And it’s easy to see why. Private collecting is free to pursue and generally does pursue an individual aesthetic, whereas institutional collecting tries to pursue a public one. And what is a public aesthetic? Museums are necessarily engaged in Berensonian connoisseurship: their activity is anchored in acknowledged facts about the objects they deal with, or at least in some sort of expert consensus. Museums buy folk art, because they know what folk art is, but they don’t buy pictures based on some ill-defined resemblance to art photography. Standards exist for folk art. Standards don’t exist for resemblances. In thinking of snapshots as folk art, institutional buyers have zeroed in on the most plausible way to apply connoisseurship to the field. But private collectors just buy what appeals to them.
But we’ve decided that snapshots are found objects, not folk art. Museums don’t buy found objects, either. A museum wouldn’t buy a piece of hardware in imitation of Duchamp; at best, a museum buying an individual snapshot will be following some collector’s taste. There can be no connoisseurship of found objects, and no connoisseurship of snapshots.
Actually, museums do buy found objects, in one important case: when a Duchamp or a Cornell or a Rauschenberg has already found them and made them into something. Otherwise they aren’t art yet and standards don’t exist for them. And now we come to the great exception to the generalization that it makes no sense for museums to buy snapshots. That is the case in which a museum acquires a collection, or a significant part of one. Then the museum is accepting the collector’s aesthetic: in effect, it’s acquiring a work of art (possibly an unconscious, inchoate, sloppy, or plain bad one). This is what happened in the case of the Met show, in which the museum acquired and displayed part of Thomas Walther’s collection. It’s also what happened in the case of the National Gallery show, in which the museum acquired and displayed part of Robert Jackson’s collection. The aesthetic unity of the collection was acknowledged in the former case, but not in the latter.
I want to devote a few more words to the National Gallery show. Because the show is broadly concerned with the history of the medium, its theorists do all they can to ignore the severe filtering effect of the modern eye—even the eye that spotted the images in the show itself. The idea that snapshot photography is a popular art is stated explicitly in Sarah Greenough’s introduction to the catalogue and is a tacit premise thereafter. For example, Matthew S. Witkovsky believes that accident is less constitutive of snapshot photography than it is of the art photography of the “snapshot aesthetic”—Arbus, Friedlander, Winogrand, and so forth (p. 241). As far as I can see, the opposite is true. At best, “snapshot aesthetic” photos are fake accidents. They’re never really accidental; they only use accident, or pretend to. But real snapshots are real accidents. We can allow Witkovsky’s statement some rough justice as applied to the unfiltered pool of snapshot material in its entirety: although the arbitrary element—the poor control of the medium built into its means and accepted by its practitioners—has the result that every snapshot contains a mass of small accidents, from composition to development and beyond, they aren’t usually enough to affect the meaning of a picture, if that’s what we’re interested in. But the statement is certainly wrong as applied to the relatively few extraordinary pictures whose arbitrary element is so powerful that they manage to make aesthetic sense to a modern eye. That is, it might be a decent generalization about snapshot history, which is Witkovsky’s theme and (nominally) that of the show, but not about the snapshots that really matter to us, including the ones that (actually) make up the show. Given the catalogue’s assumptions, there’s no reason and no way to acknowledge that “the art of the snapshot” is different in kind from “the art of the quilt” or “the art of scrimshaw” or that a collection of snapshots is fundamentally unlike a collection of handmade whirligigs.
“The Art of the American Snapshot” takes a personal project and tries to do something impersonal with it: it uses an idiosyncratic collection to illustrate a broad historical sweep. In so doing it is forced to ignore the real strengths of the collection, even as it strains to make the collection seem representative. Perhaps worse, in obscuring the work of the collector, the show deliberately leaves the impression that the photos are the work of the snapshooters. “The art of the snapshot” implies “artists of the snapshot”; without really arguing for it—for there can be no argument—the show pushes us toward the absurd conclusion that the snapshooters were artists of a kind.
What’s wrong with choosing some nice examples to illustrate a history of snapshot photography? Using examples selected from Robert Jackson’s refined and individual collection to illustrate a history of snapshot photography is like using nothing but Weegee to illustrate a survey of crime photography. In a merely technical sense they do belong to the class they are “illustrating,” but they rise so far above it in every other sense that they can’t be said to represent it. It would be much less misleading just to say they are examples of Mr. Jackson’s collection—which the show “illustrates,” but not particularly well.
The snapshot potential
Snapshots represent a truly colossal repository of imagery—so big and so diverse that there would be any number of ways to find something of interest in it. In the National Gallery show and elsewhere, snapshots have been used for the secondary and somewhat academic purpose of doing a social history of snapshot photography. This is of course within their capabilities, just as art photos could be used to do a social history of art photography. But the primary potential of the resource remains largely unexploited.
Ordinarily I don’t have anything to say about snapshots: words don’t usually add much to pictures. I feel even more strongly that words are beside the point in the case of my own pictures, and that’s because I want them to speak for me. If they can’t do that, then I don’t have much of a collection. But the idea that my pictures are in the deepest sense someone else’s, if universally accepted, would not let them speak for me. It would disallow any personal element in individual snapshots and outlaw the attempt to make something personal out of an aggregation of snapshots. It would prevent me from finding what I am looking for in snapshots. It would even imply that I haven’t found what I know I have found in snapshots. Luckily that idea is a mistake. I can’t believe anyone really tried to think it through. But since its current popularity is an obstacle to the productive use of snapshots, I’ve spent some time pointing out what’s wrong with it. I’ve argued that the “snapshot process”—the steps, unique to snapshots, by which accidentally appealing images are produced and transmitted—amounts to a vast mechanism for thinking of what you might have thought of yourself, but didn’t. It is a great impersonal engine of the personal.
Yes, snapshots may give you what you’re looking for. But they won’t bring it to you. It will still take effort on your part to recognize that gift, assuming you are open to it—to separate what concerns you from what doesn’t concern you, to find what’s really yours amid the much broader legacy of the snapshot process, the surviving body of snapshots. That job, the job of aesthetic coherence, is up to you.
I began by using Fig. 1 to illustrate the element of arbitrariness in snapshots, an element that can only exist in a nonprofessional photography and that gives rise to much of what is singular in snapshots. In fact the arbitrary factor in Fig. 1 is so overpowering that it’s very unclear what might have happened to produce the picture or what the intention might have been. The outer reaches of arbitrariness represent one coherent aesthetic strain to be found in the snapshot pool. A few more examples from this particular snapshot zone:
I stress that these pictures are as snapshotty as can be. The property in question is something that comes naturally to snapshots. Only in a snapshot could it be anything but manufactured. And only if snapshots are found objects are we permitted to focus on it. Finally: only if snapshots are personal, in some sense entirely the finder’s, am I permitted to make use of it.
As a snapshot collector, I’ve sometimes run into people who are sincerely outraged that I would appropriate photos that were once the intimate possessions of families unknown to me. In a way, what I do could be called disrespectful, to put it as neutrally as possible. But if it’s disrespectful, I think it’s no more so than buying, than owning and valuing other old things that may well have been precious to someone else. I believe a certain squeamishness about trespassing on that lost sentimental value may ultimately be responsible for the wish to think of snapshots as the art of the people who took them. That way we’d be letting them have as much as possible, so to speak, and claiming as little as possible for ourselves. If snapshooters were artists, our job would be to respectfully appreciate their achievement. We wouldn’t be twisting it to our own ends, with all the disrespect that implies. But an image is an image. There are any number of ways that interesting snapshot images can arrive on the emulsion, but not many snapshot images that are clearly the product of a considered aesthetic decision by someone. And, no matter how the work of the collectors is packaged, there’s no honest feeling among them that an image must be the product of such a decision in order to be interesting. The collectors themselves are the ones who are engaged in making considered aesthetic decisions, and a collection represents a mass of such decisions. Throughout this article I’ve stressed the subjective element in anything we can do with snapshots as photographs. It seems obvious to me that snapshots as we find them are indeterminate—incomplete—and that the active labor of another eye is needed in order to finish the job; further, that everyone who undertakes that job will have a different way of going about it. A distinctive result is in the nature of the materials: snapshots are raw enough that they ask for a next step, yet rich enough to contain many next steps.
In writing this essay I benefited from conversations with the following people, though needless to say none of them bears any responsibility for whatever errors and flaws remain: Pelle Cass, Chris Culy, Andrew Flamm, Michelle Hauser, Robert Jackson, Wayne Macedo, Melissa Monroe, Nick Osborn, Estelle Rosen, and Janet West. Thanks all!
1. Douglas R. Nickel, Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998); Mia Fineman (ed.), Other Pictures: Anonymous Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection (Santa Fe: Twin Palms, 2000); Sarah Greenough et al., The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007).
2. The term’s application is actually wider, taking in non-art photography of all kinds.
3. Diane Keaton and Marvin Heiferman, Bill Wood’s Business (New York: International Center of Photography, 2008). See also Diane Keaton, Mr. Salesman (Santa Fe: Twin Palms, 1993); Diane Keaton, Still Life: Hollywood Tableaux Photographs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985).
4. It’s interesting to consider what an artist would have to do in order to replicate this aspect of snapshot feeling. The only solution would be to somehow have photos taken without the artist’s knowledge—by setting up automatic cameras in homes or public places, for example.
5. For some early approaches, see Andrew Lanyon, Snap: A Family Album (London: Gordon Fraser, 1974); Christopher Rauschenberg, Drugstore Photographs (Portland, Oregon: Pair O’ Dice Press, 1976); Ken Graves and Mitchell Payne, American Snapshots (Oakland, California: Scrimshaw, 1977).
6. The remarkable artist Albert Louden lost “outsider” credibility after he achieved too much of the wrong kind of success. See John Windsor, “Catch 22: The Case of Albert Louden,” Raw Vision 18, Spring 1997.
7. “It’s not about value, it’s about weirdness,” Shaw said of his project. See Roberta Smith, “‘Outsider Art’ Goes Beyond the Fringe,” New York Times, Sept. 15, 1991, Art View.
8. “[F]ew scholars, historians, or curators have examined the evolution of this popular art in America. . . That is what this book and exhibition seek to do” (Greenough et al., pp. 3–4).