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)