Ordinary Pictures and Accidental Masterpieces: Snapshot Photography in the Modern Art Museum

Article excerpt

In a seminal essay titled "Vernacular Photographies," first published in 2ooo, the photography scholar Geoffrey Batchen calls for us to "restore photography to its own history."1 Too often, photography has been the square peg forced into the round hole of an art-historical discourse grounded in painting, its visual structures and aesthetics. To better understand photography as an idea, a visual medium, and a concrete visual practice on its own terms, we need to better interrogate the breadth and complexity of the visual objects we call photographs. In particular, Batchen calls attention to the pervasive but remarkably understudied category of photography he describes as "ordinary photographs, the ones made or bought . . . by everyday folk from 1839 until now, the photographs that preoccupy the home and the heart but rarely the museum or the academy."2 Encompassing a heterogeneous mix of picture postcards, photographically embellished jewelry and domestic objects, inexpensive ambrotype and tintype portraits, and, of course, billions of common, amateur snapshots, this "troublesome" and "abject" corpus of vernacular imagery represents a blind spot in studies of photography. On the one hand, it is both too ubiquitous and too banal to be understood within the rarefying context of fine art. Indeed, because it is valued and defined in primarily sentimental terms, vernacular photography seems, at times, to resist critical intellectual scrutiny entirely. Yet at the same time, as that which is repressed in photography's official histories, vernacular photography gives us insight into how photographic aesthetics are constructed and what has been excluded in the process. By admitting this chaotic and often crude body of images into the photographic canon or, better yet, as Batchen suggests, by seeing vernacular photography as "the organizing principle of photography's history in general," we stand to gain a far richer and more nuanced understanding of photography as an aesthetic medium, an historical document, and a dynamic social practice.3

But this begs the question: what exactly might such a vernacular history look like? Two years prior to the publication of Batchen's essay, the project of putting vernacular photography under the lens of historical and aesthetic scrutiny may have already begun. In the summer of 1998, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) presented Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present, an exhibition devoted, as the title suggests, to precisely the kinds of ordinary photographs that, according to Batchen, rarely preoccupy the museum or the academy. The temporal span of the show ranged from the year the Kodak No. 1 snapshot camera was first introduced to, if not quite the actual present, then at least a somewhat recent past (sometime in the 1980s), proximate enough to recall moments in the visitor's lifetime, yet distant enough to maintain a nostalgic sense of the "good old days." The photographs in the show were all "snapshots" in the traditional sense, albeit in a decidedly quirky vein. Made by amateur photographers with inexpensive cameras, they depicted conventional subjects: friends and family, holidays and birthdays, vacations, leisure activities, and family pets. Most of the photographs were black and white. The few in color bore the characteristic oversaturated hues and square frame of the now-outmoded chromogenic development print. With their wealth of particular visual detail, the images selected for the Snapshots exhibition offered concrete historical insight into not only the character of American domestic life over the past century, but also the technology, visual conventions, and social customs of snapshot photography itself. Indeed, Snapshots was part of what SFMoMA's deputy director for curatorial affairs Lori Fogarty described as "a programmatic effort . . . to investigate the medium of photography comprehensively as a critical part of visual culture."4 Following on the heels of two other vernacular-photography exhibitions at SFMoMA, Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present (1996) and Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence (1997), Snapshots presented an array of illustrative examples of the snapshot to be considered within the context of that genre, as American cultural artifacts. …