Vernacular Photography: The Democratic Art
The simple act of taking a photograph, we often forget, is a remarkable human achievement. A camera is the sort of technological sorcery that should leave us humbled, as it no doubt humbled those who created the first images over 180 years ago; and yet, with a camera in virtually every person’s pocket, we are no more surprised by its wonders today than we are by the fact that a pocket lighter harnesses fire or that text messages with our friends are ping-ponged back and forth through outer space in mere seconds. Snapshot photographs, often referred to as vernacular photographs, are viewed with even less astonishment by the general public, if for no other reason than their utter ubiquity. Taken for the most part by everyday people and amateur enthusiasts, snapshots are perceived by many to be non-art, or at best less-than-art.
As a longtime aficionado and collector of vernacular photographs, I naturally harbor an opposing and stalwartly contrarian view. Despite their humble origins, they are for me nothing less than archeological treasures, of moments frozen and lives suspended in a transcendent defiance of death. These little squares and rectangles of black and white emulsion, fixed in time as if by stopwatch, offer us glimpses into lives lost long ago. The narratives of snapshots can be self-evident or inscrutable, banal or breathtaking, heartening or humorous. Moreover, in the best examples, they can be aesthetically rewarding. Some are masterful in their compositions and inventive in their choice of subject matter: they have something. It’s often difficult to articulate what that something might be, and it’s likely something different for every person. Over the years I have collected those images that possess that something, as I see and feel it. The images in this exhibition have been curated with this idea in mind.
For younger viewers of this online exhibition, the entire notion of vernacular photography may seem quaint. Or a complete mystery. Vernacular refers to the art of a particular region, or the dialect of a particular region. While some scholars have expressed displeasure with the term for its inadequacy to accurately describe photographs made by non-artists, it is frequently used in place of the word snapshot (alternatives to vernacular have been suggested, such as folk photography, which also seems inadequate). If you’re unfamiliar with snapshots, a little information may help. Before digital cameras, human beings captured their images on film, usually in little metal canisters containing a set number of photographs, like 24 or 36. When all the photographs were taken, the film was rewound, removed from the camera, and dropped off at a drugstore or other location that developed film. After a few days, you would receive your prints, along with the negatives in case you wanted to have duplicate prints made at a later date. They all came in a nice little envelope for convenient labeling and storage. Many people glued or mounted their photographs into family albums, which were books that served as repositories of memories. The size and shape of the prints varied over time, although generally speaking snapshot images were no larger than the average hand.
Collecting snapshot photographs is a relatively inexpensive endeavor. Flea Markets and yard sales are overflowing with snapshots, and many an afternoon has been spent excavating through piles of photos for the ones that have that something special. Online auctions are also good sources to find captivating images. It may seem odd to occupy one’s time in other people’s lives, communing on a certain level with the dead relatives of other people, and I suppose it is odd. But I maintain there is a beauty to it as well. These lives are unknowable but not forgotten, at least not by me. I’ve appropriated their memories. Remember that time in 1915 when you were lost in thought on the front porch, dressed in bib overalls? I wasn’t there, but I’ve held that moment in my hand and wondered what you were thinking in that moment. What was furrowing your brow so? And remember when you did a handstand atop a hay bale? I’ve seen you. And I’ve also thought of the unseen person who thought you were so amazing, or so ridiculous, that they used one of their limited number of photographs to capture you doing it.
I’ve given considerable thought to the question of why vernacular photographs are perceived as less-than-art. It’s more complicated than you might think, once you give it some consideration. Imagine, for instance, that a professional photographer is walking by a storefront and sees the reflections of the building across the street in the shop window. The unusual patterns they make triggers some artistic impulse in the photographer and they quickly raise their lens and capture it with a snap of the shutter-release. Ten minutes later, a tourist walks by and has a virtually identical impulse, grabs their camera and photographs the window reflections. Who can say the impulse of the first passerby is valid, but not that of the second? What about a professional photographer with the same camera as the tourist, with nearly identical results? One could argue that the tourist is no more a photographer than someone who mails a letter is the Postmaster General. Conversely, there is something to be said for the essential human impulse that motivates both the professional and the amateur.
It seems to me that this artistic impulse, what used to be called The Art Spirit (or Art Impulse, if you like), is not the monopoly of a select few but the birthright of being human. The cruel division of human existence into specializations, the result of economics and not of a striving towards our general happiness, has led us to believe that there are artists and there are other people who are not artists. After looking at probably hundreds of thousands of snapshots over the past 50 years or so, I’ve come to two conclusions: The Art Spirit exists, and it exists in far more people than is generally acknowledged. For every so often, once you sift through those seemingly endless photographs of common experience—the blowing out of the birthday candles, the backyard get-togethers, the posing next to a new house or new car—you find the snapshot with, well, that something. For me it’s often a realization that a human being once encountered this object, or this person, or this natural form, and saw its inherent beauty. They knew. Instinctually, perhaps, or perhaps not. It’s impossible to know for sure. But there is a moment when you see what they saw, and you understand what it was that likely compelled them to photograph it. What is that, but communication across time? It’s a strange form of séance, a sort of mind reading that we generally attribute to the reading of authors from the distant past.
At the heart of issue, then, is an inherent elitism that assigns aesthetic value to the artistic impulses of certain individuals (professional artists) over the impulses of the ordinary (but often extraordinary) amateur shutterbug. The assumption is that the professional photographer has, or should have, loftier aspirations than those of the ordinary person, and this may or may not be true, depending on the person in question. Professional photographers usually employ better equipment than their amateur counterparts, although again: not always. Moreover, professional photographers develop their own film (or used to, before digital), in a darkroom, allowing them full control over the process, and that process is where the magic, or the art, happens. Amateur shutterbugs sent their film off to be developed by others, with no expectations on either side of receiving or delivering an artistic result. These are, I suppose, the arguments with the most merit in defense of the seasoned professional.
There are a number of other reasons why vernacular photographs are considered less-than-art.
1) Snapshots are relatively small in size, unlike the enlargements of professional photographers; their scale is intimate, private, and intended for personal or family enjoyment. They are akin in this sense to miniature portraits, which are generally accorded less attention and appreciation than standard-sized portrait paintings. Due to their scale, snapshots are also difficult to frame and exhibit in a way that shows them to their best advantage.
2) Snapshots are for the most part anonymous. The prime directive of Art History to create viable or believable narratives is not equipped to handle anonymity. For a substantial narrative to exist, there must be a name to attach to an image.
3) The anonymity of snapshots precludes the narrative generally provided to the careers of artists, that of an early career and development towards some end; the establishment of a project or working method, and the carrying out of that idea until it develops into the next project or working method. With no identified photographer, it is impossible to discern a development of ideas or themes. A snapshot simply is. Similarly, anonymity does not allow for the timeline of influence inherent to art history, whereby artists influence later artists who in turn influence later artists. Snapshots by their very nature negate this narrative daisy chain of emulation.
4) Due to the incalculable number of snapshots and their scattered locations, it is impossible to fully access, catalogue, assess, and interpret them through the traditional means available to Art History.
And yet, despite all of these sensible reasons to discount vernacular photographs, I simply cannot. For photography is among the most democratic of the arts, perhaps the most democratic. The technology is accessible. It requires very little specialized training to create an acceptable result, even more so in this age of apps and filters. In fact, the history of photography, ever since George Eastman unveiled the Kodak No. 1 camera in 1880, has been geared towards bringing the complex and dangerous process of developing images to the common person in the simplest means possible (and selling cameras, of course, but that's another story). The camera's potential for harnessing human creativity is rivaled only by the modern computer, which similarly took an incredibly complex process and simplified it to icons and images for the common person to use without being intimidated; both have the potential to inspire our creativity in ways beyond the pedestrian.
The American Eye takes as its starting premise that not only is vernacular photography a democratic art, it is one that has a uniquely American outlook. It is hoped that within this exhibition viewers will come to their own conclusions about what that outlook or outlooks might be. The photographs have been arranged in categories, for convenience: Portraits, Love & Family, Intriguing Compositions, Humor & Hijinks, Nature, Children, Labor & Rest, and Leisure & Sport. The dates of these images range from 1890 to several recent Instagram photos posted by Allen Pierre (a former Kingsborough student). Each snapshot photograph is displayed without its border, to allow the viewer to concentrate more on the image and less on its pedigree. I hope that within this exhibition you find images that surprise you with their ingenuity, creativity, artistic sensibilities, and humor--and inspire you to find your Art Spirit.
Brian E. Hack, Ph.D.
Curator, The American Eye
Dr. Brian Edward Hack is the Director of the Kingsborough Art Museum and the curator of The American Eye: Vernacular Photography in the United States from the Brownie Camera to Instagram. Dr. Hack is delighted to share his collection with the Kingsborough community in this virtual exhibition.
Photo: Vernacular photograph of the author, circa late 1970s.