Friday, October 5, 2007

Two books on the American Snapshot

There is a quote by John Szarkowski that I read years ago and cannot remember clearly. He said something about photography being promiscuous. I am not quoting him obviously because I've already said I can’t remember...but it was something like: Photography is a promiscuous lover, she will give it up (a masterpiece) on a one night stand to an amateur as readily as she will to some professional who is wed to her. I am sure the actual quote doesn’t say “give it up” but you get the point.

The countless number of family photo albums hidden away in various credenzas will attest to his sentiment. Inside those albums, trapped in pages of that electro-stick paper are masterpieces worthy of sitting beside the world’s great masters of the medium. Who would have thought that when Uncle Pete took a photo of Aunt Jean by the family Ford that the photo gods would notice Pete taking a photo and suddenly grace him with an image that could elevate him momentarily into a master? It happens all the time. Photography is an unpredictable slut.

Since photography is mostly a mechanical process these things are possible. Some other thoughtful soul said something to the effect of: The photographer is capable of making a sketch or a masterpiece using the same gesture. (I probably butchered that one too). I guess if you handed a brush and paint to a 5 year old that they could, in theory, make something as visually sophisticated as Cy Twombly or Robert Motherwell. That is what a lot of people say isn’t it? My five year old could do that. There is currently a movie out which addresses this exact topic called “My Kid Could Paint That” although the little girl featured is four years old not five. And her paintings sold for over $20,000. But since there are billions more images being made than paintings are being painted, we have tons of examples of exactly what I am talking about.

This begs the question, if a photograph or “piece” is created with complete naiveté, can we /should we approach it in the same way that we consider the “real” art in a museum or gallery. I want to say that it doesn’t matter what a person’s intention was, all that matters is the final image. And even if the image was created by a “non-professional” in the most jaw-dropping, casual manner, then it is as valid as anything that could be hung next to it.
Picasso and Uncle Pete.

Two new books feature collections of such “masterpieces,” The Art of The American Snapshot 1888-1978 from Princeton University Press and Michael Abrams's …Strange and Singular…from Loosestrife Editions.

The Art of The American Snapshot 1888-1978 is a catalog that will accompany an exhibition of the same name that will be on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC on October 7th. The photographs in the exhibition and catalog are culled from the collection of Robert E. Jackson who believes that creativity is not solely the province of artists but resides in all of us.

The book is illustrated with a couple of hundred images, the earliest of which correspond to the year that Kodak released its first camera, 1888 and the latest from are 1978. Within essays by Sarah Greenough, Diane Wagner and Matthew S. Witkovsky, the catalog provides a history that reflects the technological advances from Kodak Brownie (the first generation) to the Leica (the second generation) to the third and fourth generations which enjoyed cartridge loaded cameras and instant cameras with Polaroid materials. Matthew Witkovsky mentions in his essay on 1960 to 1978 a rivalry between Kodak and Polaroid as there were collaborations with artists that gave Polaroid a certain respect that was previously only held by Kodak.

The photographs featured in this book are surely fine examples of wonderfully inventive and playful photos but considering how much has been produced (Polaroid estimates that over a billion instant photos were made in 1974 alone) there could easily be twenty volumes on this study and we probably wouldn‘t get tired of looking. Thankfully, this book is large at almost 300 pages. It is finely produced with a nice design contributed by Margaret Bauer and the photo separations were created by the masterful Robert Hennessey. One interesting touch is the reproductions are mostly actual size of the originals and include the various straight or scalloped decorative edges of the photos.

Michael Abrams ….Strange and Singular… is another title that is a collection of found family snapshots. The difference here is that the book’s construction and design creates a much different dynamic. Books of found photos are somewhat common. Some like the Fraenkel Gallery’s recent The Book of Shadows feature photos presented in thematic ways. The Book of Shadows has the photographer’s shadow appearing in all of the images.

The dynamic created in Michael Abrams’ book is an edit and order to the photographs so as to create what the book’s title implies. The full title, taken from Michel Foucault is: A readiness to find Strange and Singular, what surrounds us, a certain relentlessness to break up our familiarities, a fervor to grasp what is happening and what passes; a casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies of the important.

What better description of the impetus of photography can be found (in a very French intellectual kind of way I mean)?

The book is a linear journey through photographs that moves along effortlessly due to the strength of the selection of images and a compelling design. As with all of Loosestrife’s books (I think) John Gossage is credited with the design along with Mr. Abrams. Together, they tempt disaster with design quirks such as images where one half appears on one page and the other half appears on the verso but the risks they have taken only add to the artistry of the book. The visual flow and “narration” that comes in the form of various quotes about photography keeps you moving through this familiar yet unknown and often confusing territory. The sequence opens with an optimistic image of a car on the open road and ends with two photos of a taxi that seem innocuous until you notice the chalk outline on the pavement.

Occasionally throughout the book quotes from various voices appear mostly in dialogue with photography itself. I read this as a kind of “narration” coming from Abrams directly. Although I like the way they designed the type in relation to the images with words laid over photographs or the text being obscured by the photos, the quotes sometimes fall flat for me. That may simply be because I am familiar with many of the quotes chosen and I immediately see the cleaver pairings.

The book is made from very fine materials and as with all of their books, it feels as nice as it looks. This is the smallest in trim size in relation to Loosestrife’s other titles, some of which are epic in their proportions but it holds its own with its intimacy. One surprise is few actual photographs that have been slipped into different places in each book making each edition unique.

These two titles make me question the art of photography. It is almost depressing (to my ego) that so many great photographs are made by someone just responding to something with naiveté and the result produces something of wonder. The difference is how the maker and the viewer respond when looking at the final image. Most likely the two have very different perceptions. We may see the pattern of the dress Aunt Jean is wearing and the shape of the fender on the Ford as siblings from the same family (and the dog pissing in the background) and perhaps the photographer just sees Aunt Jean and the Ford (and the dog pissing in the background).

Art is in the eye of the beholder. I sometimes wish I could just see the Ford. It is enough to make you feel so damn mediocre to see the art in everything.

Book Available Here (Art of the American Snapshot)

Book Available Here (Strange and Singular)


Anonymous said...

I think it was Chuck Close who said: Photography is the only medium where you can accidently make a masterpiece.

But then I could check that at:

only it's not there.

Colin [] said...

These two titles make me question the art of photography. It is almost depressing (to my ego) that so many great photographs are made by someone just responding to something with naiveté and the result produces something of wonder.

You don't often say something that I disagree with....

Without getting precious about definitions, photography is usually seen as being more connected to reality than the other visual arts. You start off with what is there. I don't see any reason to suppose that an everyday photographer can't be as alive to interesting compositions as the experienced artist. Sometimes responding to something with naivete is what is needed.

The difference is how the maker and the viewer respond when looking at the final image. Most likely the two have very different perceptions.

I don't see that you have any evidence for this assertion. It supposes that viewing art is something that requires a special skill (or, perhaps, training). Whilst it is implausible to argue that everybody who has ever wielded a camera has an aesthetic sense, it is equally implausible to suggest that only the annointed priesthood does.

I sometimes wish I could just see the Ford.

Ach, no. But revel in the fact that people around you also see the art.

Unknown said...

the thing about the naivete and wonder - that is pretty much what as a sophisticated, by which I mean spoiled, photographer we have to keep trying to get back to. It's not depressing that photography can be the product of naivete, it's depressing that we lose it.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the comments.

My assertion wasn't meant to be snobby which is what it can easily sound like.

What I mean is, it is one thing for anyone to go into a gallery or museum to view "art" (those places are a tip off to many people that "enter here and you will see art") In those spaces the person is put into a mindset that, whether you like the work or not, you see it as "art."

The perception my mom seems to have of the photos she takes of her many cats, is more "it's a picture of my cat," not a potential great work of art. I have tried to explain that photographs can be masterpieces in untrained hands as much as in trained ones (could possibly be better to be untrained, most of my students that are a clean slate to photography produce much more interesting work than those that come with years of experience. I think what happens is the poisoning of "thinking about photos" instead of reacting and responding to things with your intuition but that is another whole discussion) I have at times pointed out in various family albums some photos that I think are really great and by my experience the people have reacted as if to say "really?"

I think most people have a sense that you have to have to intention to create art to actually create art. So if I were to continue that thought to looking at images by someone like my mom (who i love dearly by the way) she perceives family photos as probably not being capable of being great art because the intention wasn't there. The intention was, to record Uncle Pete by the Ford.

I would also point to the example that there have been many times I have taken a photo of the sidewalk or of some garbage and people look with wonder at what I am looking at and I have even been asked why would I want to take a photo of that.

I am not saying that people cannot see what I see without being trained. I am simply conditioned to see and perceive differently because this is my daily obsession. My mother can see the beauty and art in other things that she has conditioned herself to that I cannot.

That is what I mean.

Anonymous said...


true, true.

What I mean by depressing was a bit tongue in cheek although partly not. I see so many images and I am a photographer who makes a lot of them. When I see such greatness in the occasional photograph (that is not mine) I start to think..."what is the point of what I am doing."

It is not to make "great" photographs. I photograph to learn something. Something about the world or myself (or even about photography) and I see so many images that I can learn from that were taken by other people. I am not able to stop photographing but i do think that at times, I learn more from others than I do by my own production.

That is depressing because it says to me that I am not doing it.

So when I say I want to just see the Ford, it is because the blessing and curse of this medium as I experience it , is the constant reminder that you will most likely fail. My reaction to that makes me not want to see the potential in everything ALL THE TIME.

Colin [] said...


We only differ in nuance then - and comments boxes are not the best for dealing in nuances.

I rather like Amy's point about losing the naivete to make photos. I think that it is a Winograndism that we know too much about how photos should look.

Anonymous said...

Amy's point hits the nail right on the head.

Walter Dufresne said...

"John Szarkowski, after speaking to the photography students about his lifelong involvement with the medium, warned us that 'photography is a broad-minded and indiscriminate mistress. She's loose. She doesn't care any more for those of us who study her seriously than she does for her one-night stands.' We understood, took John out for a drink at the bar next door, and went on with our efforts, hoping that the study might at least improve our chances."
from The Mystery of Photographic Longevity or Keeping It Out of Dean Benson's Trash Can
by Rebecca Soderholm
Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin 2006

Anonymous said...


THANK YOU! It was driving me crazy that I could not find the exact quote. My version is in the parlance of the youth of today.

One Way Street said...

I just saw the Michael Abrams book at the ICP library: it's luscious! I think it is in league with artists' books which deal with vernacular images, such as Tacita Dean's FLOH or Hans-Peter Feldmann's books. Also it deals with collecting impulses & the voyeurism of snapshots, the weird labyrinth of looking at snaps. What a fascinating book.

I've been amassing books of vernacular images. The qualities can vary widely - from nostalgic sentimentality to bona-fide artists' book. One aspect that might be considered is that in such collections, the authorial voice is not in the actual images, per se, but in the collection/collector.