Snapshot Photography, Now and Then: Making, Sharing, and Liking Photographs at the Digital Frontier

By Zuromskis, Catherine | Afterimage, July-October 2016 | Go to article overview

Snapshot Photography, Now and Then: Making, Sharing, and Liking Photographs at the Digital Frontier


Zuromskis, Catherine, Afterimage


The following article is based on a talk given at the Visual Studies Workshop's November 2015 symposium "Found, Shared, Liked" held in conjunction with the exhibition The Curious Reality of Images: Rick McKee Hock.

For over a century now, snapshot photography has been a means for everyday people to document the people, places, and things we want to remember most, and in the most idyllic light possible. These treasured images have long populated frames on our mantelpieces, desks, bulletin boards, and refrigerator doors. We have tucked them into wallets, curated them into family albums, and stashed them in shoeboxes and card files at the backs of our closets and under our beds. We keep the images close to us because they speak to us and for us, reinforcing our memories and histories and cultivating our senses of self, even though, in actuality, we may not look at them very often. They exist to be seen but also, on some level, just to exist: as relics and remnants, precious physical traces of our individual identities and histories. At least, this used to be the case. Now, fully immersed as we are in the digital age, our personal photos populate these physical places less and less frequently, and have moved increasingly to the domain of smartphones, digital storage clouds, and photosharing sites. These images still have lives and potent individual and social meanings, but theirs are lives lived in an ever more instantaneous, networked, and arguably image-glutted realm. This phenomenon suggests that snapshot photography has entered a new frontier, one that affects how photographs are made, how they are circulated, and perhaps most profoundly, how they exist (or don't) as material traces of the past.

As a scholar, I have spent a significant portion of my academic life thinking about snapshot photography. My book Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images (2013) is a study of the snapshot as a mode of visual communication in both private and public contexts, critiquing and exploring the snapshot's sometimes stifling cultural conventions as well as its liberatory possibilities as a means of self-fashioning. I've considered the snapshot as a cultural practice, a symbolic language, and an art form. I am also a lifelong, enthusiastic snapshooter. I own a variety of conventional and novelty snapshot cameras, from Polaroids to lomographic cameras, and even my misguided attempts at fine art photography during my college years were derivative, Nan Goldin-esque pictures of friends at parties. Now, as the mother of a small child, my snapshooting practice (almost exclusively with the iPhone I purchased shordy after my daughter was born) has reached a not unusual, but no less extreme fever pitch over the past four years. Though I have no particular expertise in digital culture, I am of a generation that has migrated from analog to digital photography, and while there is still much of the social media landscape I have yet to adopt (Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest), my Instagram and Facebook accounts are well used and representative visual records of my ongoing engagement with casual personal photography in the digital age. As much as I love cameras and film and the physicality of photographs, like so many, I rarely, if ever, use film anymore.

From my personal and professional observations, then, it would be easy to conclude that digital photography and digital photosharing have changed everything about snapshot photography. Transition breeds anxiety about the past--what we are losing, what is dying--as well as the future. As a medium, and as a collection of image-objects, photography is ceasing to be, at least in the way it once was. Part of the impetus of my book--very intentionally not a book about digital modes of photography--was to examine an historical image culture on the verge of transition. With that transition now well underway, it is perhaps not surprising that the dominant critique of my book is that it is not a book about digital photography and photosharing. …

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