Friday, April 2, 2010


There’s really no excuse for being interested in snapshots unless we’re interested in something that only snapshots can give us.

This is why it seems to me that many subject interests mix rather uneasily with snapshots. How is a snapshot of a dog inherently and significantly different from a conventional photo of a dog? But it may be that what we’re really intrigued by is the family dog, in his native habitat. Here we are entering true snapshot territory. Snapshots of the family dog bring us something that doesn’t exist to the same degree outside snapshot photography, certainly not in photography that doesn’t owe a great deal to snapshot photography.

But it’s the formal properties of snapshots that are most attractive to some of us. The sloppiness of snapshots, for example, can only exist in a medium in which almost no one worried about it too much. And that same sloppiness, of course, produced some wonderful things.

What can we do with snapshots that really takes advantage of the form? That’s the collector’s question.

I want to point to a class of snapshots that has no analogue in other kinds of photography. Snapshots were usually taken for a clear and simple purpose--to get a rough-and-ready record of the subject. Nevertheless, there are snapshots whose purpose is fundamentally mysterious. That class is to be distinguished from joke shots, accidents, and arty experiments. Why were these pictures taken? The question goes well beyond the related question “What’s going on here?” And I stress that (unlike “What’s going on here”) it can only arise in snapshots. The same question asked of a mysterious art photo, for example, would have a clear answer: to be mysterious and to be art.
Unlike the cooked-up mysteries of art, these are real mysteries. No one is being cute or deliberately obscure; no one is posing questions at all. We may enjoy these pictures, but we didn’t play a role in why they were made. They weren’t taken with us in mind. If we’re curious about why they were taken, it’s not because we’re wondering about something an artist wants us to wonder about. We’re curious about historical reality--about the actual events represented by the photos themselves.


  1. I see the sloppiness of historical reality in everyday events. I feel as though I’m perceiving art, just like when I’m looking at a vintage snapshot. These sloppy second (we are at least the second viewer) snapshots offer a profound sense of inspiration and joy. I desire to capture these ordinary moments, but they're fleeting, until the next moment, and the next moment, and the next moment!

    Larry Baumhor

  2. Thoughtful and insightful entry. I refer to these kinds of photos as "elusive". The snapshot is very malleable medium within the larger realm of photography and can often be used to mean or say whatever you want them to. These photos come close to pure photography-that is photography and image-making for their own sake with no apparent narrative strand which the observer can use to "read" the photo and no sense of the personality of the photographer noted in the taking of the photo. The subject of the photo is what you perceive it to be. The photo exists independent of associative imagery derived from memory and the tropes of previous snapshot subjects.

  3. I just read "The Art of the Snapshot?" and I think it's the best article I have ever read on the subject. Superb, Joel!