Academic journal article Afterimage

Roll Over

Academic journal article Afterimage

Roll Over

Article excerpt

The Snapshot's Museum Afterlife

A diver's suspended body defines the topmost edge of a soft sepia-gray sky. In a fraction of a second, he will plunge toward the sea below. The blurred figure of a soldier crumples as though hit by enemy fire. Abstracted in close-up, a machine fragment on a tabletop returns the camera's mute robotic gaze. A woman's sunlit face, neatly bisected by shadow, peeks from the window of a black Ford automobile. These descriptions evoke a pantheon of classic photographs, to which one reflexively attaches authors: Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Robert Gapa, Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz. But a glance at the pictures undercuts all iconic pretensions. The diver's clinging swimsuit betrays more anatomical detail than it should; the soldier dropping his stick-rifle cracks a baby-toothed grin; the would-be Futurist still life bears a mundane engineer's caption; and on the car's running board rests the stiff leather shoulder case of a vest-pocket Kodak. The evident high-modernist references and the pleasant shock of their quick def lation are equally to the point, for the pictures are four out of the hundreds of anonymously made snapshots that were matted, framed and submitted to aesthetic scrutiny in summer exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) in 1998 and New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2000.

In these pages in 1992, David Trend wrote that as a visual corollary to the study of domestic life, the family snapshot was due for critical reckoning among "activist cultural producers," a trend for which he saw encouraging signs. [1] The intervening decade has indeed proven a boom period for public analysis of the snapshot in its myriad capacities: emblem of social communication, enigmatic New Historicist artifact, home-grown performance document. These investigations have in large part occurred, however, not under the aegis of cultural studies, but through the varied efforts of artists and curators, who have given the snapshot a prominent role to play in the reinvention of public exhibition venues for photographic media. A survey of the snapshot's long twentieth-century history of near misses at museum worthiness, and a closer look at some of the still-evolving aesthetic and historical uses to which the snapshot is being put today, may serve to highlight the predicament faced by the media of memory. For i t has been pointed out that in the acute self-consciousness of this, the early digital era, the analog photograph has "taken on a memorial role, not of the subjects it depicts but of its own operation as a system of representation." [2] Not unlike the skipping, popping, long-playing vinyl record, an object of fetishistic nostalgia among listeners raised on compact discs, the snapshot with its blurs and thumbprints is taking shape as the most potent emblem of a dying medium's historicity.

In their catalog essays, Douglas R. Nickel and Mia Fineman, curators of SFMoMA's "Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present" and the Met's "Other Pictures: Anonymous Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection," [3] are appropriately circumspect about whether the art museum in its present form is truly prepared for the type of questions invited by the decontextualized snapshot--a genre of image that in both exhibitions, and especially the Met's, leaned toward the obstinately inexplicable, if not the wacky. And yet in both catalogs the photographs, in all their double-exposed, misfired, crookedly-held-Brownie glory, are reproduced in full color or duo-tone, one to a spacious page--the treatment that art photography books have taught us to expect for expertly-crafted contact prints on the silver-rich paper of modern photography's golden age--which is, after all, what these pictures are. [4]

When approached as objects of folk-art, industrially abetted yet domestically conceived (or vice versa), snapshots brilliantly illustrate the kinds of collective invention and bracing incoherence that modernity at its best made possible. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.