Snapshots, with a poignancy peculiar to photographic images, capture the past while strongly implying its obliteration.
Among the homely staples of twentieth-century life that have been unceremoniously retired by the microchip revolution—the typewriter, the pressed-wax record, the card catalogue—the camera loaded with film has met a swift and stealthy end. Digital cameras look much like their analog predecessors, but the viewfinder is different—a tiny TV screen, held at arm’s length—and we don’t have to wait for the mistakes to come back from the drugstore before discarding them. We didn’t, in fact, often discard silver-based snapshots, but kept them, with their negatives, in boxes and drawers to await a definitive culling that rarely came. They began to slide into obsolescence before the turn of this century, and had already become “collectibles,” with a fellowship of collectors and dealers feeding on the shoals of these silverfish as they raggedly rose from the depths of the private realm to surface in the marketplace. One prominent collector, Robert E. Jackson, of Seattle, struck up a relationship with the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, that has resulted in his donation of a hundred and thirty-eight snapshots to the institution and an exhibition, titled “The Art of the American Snapshot 1888-1978.” The exhibition, which runs through the end of the year, includes two hundred and fifty-four items, all from Jackson’s gift or his collection, and is commemorated with a two-hundred-and-ninety-four-page catalogue of the same name (National Gallery of Art in association with Princeton; $55).
The volume defies easy handling—it is heavier than one expects, and wordier—and an easy aesthetic response. The brief foreword, by the National Gallery’s director, Earl A. Powell III, poses the critical problem nicely:
In the years since 1888, when George Eastman and others made it possible for anyone to make a photograph, billions of snapshots have been made in this country alone. Most of them poignantly remind their makers of a person, place, or event with special meaning or importance to their lives.
All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. . . . A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence.
Without a felt connection to one’s own mortal course through a lifetime of circumstance, snapshots become baffling and boring, their “qualities and intentions,” as Sontag says, “swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past.” The generalized pathos, however, needs less than a multitude of illustrations. Most amateur snapshots fall short of being either art or news. An album by a professional art photographer, such as Richard Kalvar’s recent “Earthlings” (Flammarion; $65), has us studying each page for the joke or trick or shock—the news—in each elegantly composed example, selected from sheaves of less happy exposures and reproduced large enough for every detail to tell. The prints in “The Art of the American Snapshot” are reproduced at their actual modest size, with lots of blazingly white space, and have taken their riddles into oblivion with their anonymous creators. Is the baby, for instance, lying on an open packed suitcase, apparently asleep, alive or dead? What impulse led someone, probably not the photographer, to scribble a ballpoint dress over a man in bathing trunks and pen the words “Hey Big Boy, come up & see me some time!”? What is the woman standing in a field and covering her face with her shapely hands while being photographed trying to tell us? Is she peeking at the photographer (and at us) through her fingers? Is she being coy or grief-stricken? The image is arresting enough to use on the book’s dust jacket, but its peculiar agonized playfulness hangs enigmatically in the general pathos of lost time.
Such images may baffle interpretation, but they do not repel commentary. Four National Gallery curators write at some length on four periods of snapshot-taking: “Photographic Amusements, 1888-1919”; “Quick, Casual, Modern, 1920-1939”; “Fun Under the Shade of the Mushroom Cloud, 1940-1959”; and “When the Earth Was Square, 1960-1978.” Diane Waggoner tackles the thirty-year era after George Eastman’s promulgation of the first Kodak cameras: “They had a string mechanism to cock the shutter and a button to release it, and they made exposures at a shutter speed of 1/25 second.” The significant novelty wasn’t in the construction of the camera but in that of the film. Eastman had founded a company in Rochester to mass-produce gelatin dry-plate glass negatives, and after a few years he did away with the glass, inventing paper negatives that spooled onto a roll holder that fit into a standard plate camera. After a few more years, he launched a hand camera preloaded with paper negatives; he named the camera Kodak, “coining the name because it was unique and could not be mispronounced.” These early Kodaks produced round images, two and a half inches in diameter, which were developed and printed in the Rochester factory; the customer sent in the entire camera, which was returned to him, loaded with new film, along with the prints from the old, all for the not inconsiderable fee of ten dollars. “You press the button, we do the rest” was the captivating slogan.
The Eastman Kodak Company proved as prolific of slogans as of technical innovations. Within a year, the complicated transfer of emulsion to a glass plate and then to a thin, flexible gelatin support had been simplified to a one-step negative on transparent film of cellulose nitrate. Within two years, a folding camera had been introduced, with a viewfinder, characterized in its early state as a “dimly lit one-inch square.” Refinement followed refinement, and slogan followed slogan: “Kodak as you go”; “A vacation without a Kodak is a vacation wasted.” By 1900, when the first Brownie was marketed for one dollar, with rolls of film at fifteen cents apiece, America was hooked. More than a hundred and fifty thousand Brownies were sold in the first year.
The early users were a methodical, tricksome lot; they compiled careful albums and took elaborately posed pictures, with mirrors, intentional double exposures, and trompe-l’oeil feats of perspectival foolery. The spiritualism and stage theatricality of the time were echoed in tableaux vivants, eerie masks, ghostly illusions, and fancy costumes, including some jaunty cross-dressing. Summer vacations and snowstorms were snapped up as especially worth preserving. A steadying tripod and judicious use of magnesium-based flash powder enabled indoor shots. The shutter speed was still slow enough to blur action, though by 1909 Kodak had introduced Speed Kodak film, with exposure times as fast as a thousandth of a second. America was speeding up; Waggoner writes, “When middle-class America increasingly enjoyed time at play and time on the go, the camera went along for the ride—quite literally, as cameras designed to hang on the bicycle were sold for convenience of travel.” The camera and the bicycle both generated, in this clubbable era, organizations for their group enjoyment, as did the automobile in the early decades of the twentieth century. When soldiers went off to the First World War, Eastman ads offered this advice to loved ones: “The parting gift, a Kodak. Wherever he goes the world over, he will find Kodak film to fit his Kodak.” Even in the trenches, over there.
In 1922, Sarah Kennel tells us in treating the years 1920-39, the poet Vachel Lindsay wrote that “the acres of photographs in the Sunday newspapers make us into a hieroglyphic civilization far nearer to Egypt than to England.” Though increasingly commonplace and versatile—“quick, casual, modern”—the camera still found employment as a faddish toy; the booklet “Picture Taking at Night” instructed readers how to create silhouettes with backlit models. Trickery with shadows and with perspective figures in a number of the shots that have made their way into “The Art of the American Snapshot.” Stop-action dives and acrobatics take us back to a more muscular, outdoorsy America; there are two discreetly non-frontal views of skinny-dippers. A number of somewhat racy exposures hint at the camera’s significant role as a de-inhibitor, an enabler of what Kennel calls “home-grown pornography.” Nudes in provocative poses were among the earliest fruits of big-box, slow-tech photography in the mid-nineteenth century; something about the camera’s impassive appropriation of whatever is set before it invites, like a psychoanalyst’s silence, self-exposure. Another new work on photographic folk art, Näkki Goranin’s “American Photobooth” (to be published early next year, by Norton), relates how, beginning in the nineteen-fifties:
Complaints started coming in, from Woolworth’s and other stores, that people, particularly women, were stripping off their clothes for the private photobooth camera. Couples started being a little more adventurous in the privacy of the curtained booth. As a result, many of the Woolworth’s stores had to remove their curtains to discourage naughty encounters.
It is good times, happy times, that we wish to preserve. In its ads of the twenties and thirties, Kodak insistently pushed its product as the recorder of family life. “I’ll show ’em a real family!” one jubilant snapshooter brags (“He’s something to brag about, that new baby of yours”); another spread shows two commuters on a railroad platform, one of them enviously studying the other’s snapshots and thinking, “I felt ashamed. He was so proud of his children; why hadn’t I taken snapshots of mine?” A third ad simply advises, while a proficient mother photographs her two children in their lunch booth, “Let Kodak keep the story.” The camera both exalted and invaded domestic privacy—“Candid photography is making us human goldfish,” one pundit wrote in the journal Photography in 1938. Letting Kodak keep the story constituted one more formerly human operation delegated to machines; our anniversaries and children’s birthdays were remembered for us, in caches of snapshots. A vacation became a string of photo ops, a mechanical escape from what one writer, in 1928, called “the circumscribed routine of factory, store, or office.” At many a wedding, the hired photographer replaced the minister as the central officiator.
Sarah Greenough deals with the years 1940-59, under the rather frantic head “Fun Under the Shade of the Mushroom Cloud.” By 1940, flashbulbs, the color film Kodachrome and Agfacolor-Neu, and the superb Leica camera, using 35-mm. film, had been invented. Increasingly cheap and handy color film followed. In 1948, the Polaroid Corporation offered the Land Camera, which made black-and-white prints in sixty seconds, thus cutting out the local developer and making snapshot-taking more private than ever. But perhaps these innovations, and ever more automatic features relieving the photographer of control over focus and exposure time, made amateur photography too easy, for there is a discernible falling-off of artistic energy in the postwar snapshots exhibited. Except for a joyous nude of a fat girl with her eyes shut in an ecstasy of embarrassment, and a stunning pair of tan legs that are, Greenough tells us, a man’s, and a scrawny Arbusian Christmas tree in a corner, and some few others, the photos tend to look like television—fuzzy slices of life, cut with a dull knife. This section is the only one that presents a named photographer, a young Midwestern woman identified as Flo; she lived at a Milwaukee Y.W.C.A. and snapped shots of the other young women living there, none of whom, from the evidence, wanted to be photographed. Greenough tells us, as we can see, “They covered their faces with their hands or magazines; they turned and walked away or closed their doors in her face; they stuck their tongues out at her unwelcome intrusions.” Flo’s photographs, of which thirty-two, usually flash-lit, examples are included in the catalogue, rarely peek outdoors; their invariably female subjects, caught doing dishes or washing their hair, seem to nervously inhabit a flimsy bomb shelter. Greenough gamely theorizes:
From our own experiences, we instinctively know when viewing snapshots like these that they, unlike many carefully crafted works of art or fully articulated documents, possess a kind of truth that is both profound and unassailable. But what that truth is precisely remains forever unknown.
Fifties existentialism, which also gave us the deadpan facticity of the nouveau roman and, in cinema, the nouvelle vague, gives us the dogged dreariness of Flo’s unknown, though profound and unassailable, truth. The camera has acquired a will of its own, blindly recording unwilling subjects like a robotized vacuum cleaner nosing into every corner of the room.
Matthew S. Witkovsky, taking up the years 1960-78, heaves the most ornate critical language into the bottomless pit of the ordinary. He claims that the square shape favored by Brownies and Polaroids “supplants narrative flow with iconic stasis, and it tends to draw attention away from the picture toward the object as such.” He mischievously proposes that “making one’s own pictures in these years might be said for the first time to match in its breadth and banality the daily experience of seeing pictures by others.” Public and private achieve a null parity. Photographs of children, common in every era, “reveal a perhaps unaccustomed level of nonchalance that separates them from earlier family snapshots and potentially from those made more recently as well”; several show children in perilous situations and suggest “a remarkable, even disconcerting privileging of humor over safety.” The week’s funniest, most brutal videos are around the corner. Over all, Witkovsky decrees, “many of these pictures seem insistently mundane and emotionally awkward”; the vulgar or obscene gestures in a number of them “might be interpreted as a sign of increasing social recklessness, part of ‘sixties culture,’ its echoes and aftermath.” American mores and manners, in short, are going to pot, and Kodak is there to keep the story. Art photography, once distinctly aloof, with its sharp-focus nudes, mountains, and still-lifes, from amateur snapshooting, now “takes a turn toward unremediated—and therefore highly provocative—banality” in the work of “avant-garde artists such as Acconci, John Baldessari, and Dan Graham, all of whom use photography (or so they claim) as a mute and inexpressive tool.” Garry Winogrand photographed with a random lavishness that left thousands of undeveloped rolls at his death, “a snapshooter run amok.” The determination “to drain formal interest, to de-skill the creative process, generates an aesthetic that many at the time called ‘neutral’ or ‘affectless’ but which seems more accurately described as somewhere between kitsch and tedium.” Where Kodak set up shop to glorify the American family, a modern master like Diane Arbus makes it appear appalling.
The photographic impulse, as I experienced it in my days as a Nikon-toting daddy, wore two aspects, the creative and the commemorative. The first sought to catch, in the plump snap of the shutter, something vivid and even beautiful in its color and contour; the second aim, more realistic though in a sense grander, was to halt the flow of time. The camera, that highly evolved mechanism, put into Everyman’s untrained hands the chance to become, if half by accident, a death-defying artist. The collector Robert Jackson deserves the last shot; his afterword to the catalogue manages to cast a pall of reasonableness over his curious passion. He coins the phrase “a visual trophy” for a medium that “seeks to preserve an idealized and individualized moment in time.” Attempting to explain the collector’s motives, he claims, “It is the anonymous snapshot’s immediacy, inherent honesty, and unstudied freedom from external influence that are the draw. . . . The personal can therefore become impersonal.” Ah, but, then again, “a collector can have a subjective interest in a snapshot’s narrative content as a surrogate for life experiences. Thus the personal remains personal, if you will.” Like novels and scandal sheets, snapshots are windows, however smeary, into other lives. Jackson goes on to name, in four broad columns of print, a hundred and eight dealers, fellow-collectors, and flea-market merchandisers who assisted his macabre traffic in silver-based shadows. For those who care, he confides that a leading bazaar for these souvenirs of the pre-digital age is eBay.