Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Snapshot people tend to get interested in genres and categories and restrict their collecting habits accordingly. Most of the entries in this blog focus on one or another such aspect of the larger enterprise.

But art is all about feeling, photography is all about feeling, and snapshots are all about feeling. What else could they be about? Nobody’s been talking about that.

“Feeling” can be a subtle thing. Let’s not be subtle. Here I’ve tried to use snapshots to nail one simple and very specific feeling that I happen to like. The snapshooters didn’t put it there. So who did?

The idea that a composition or other formal feature might be unintended is easy to understand: with billions of snapshots, there’s going to be a measurable number of such accidents. It’s a little harder to see how a feeling (one people agree about) could be unintentional.

The key is that when a snapshot “has” a feeling for us, that feeling arises not just from its subject but, crucially, from its formal properties, which can in turn be unintentional—or at least due to some original nonexpressive purpose we can only guess at. For instance, consider the subject’s interesting remoteness from the camera in most of my examples—its “lostness” within the frame. If this wasn’t a complete accident, it might conceivably have come about in some cases because the photographer was hoping to catch the subject unawares, or just thought it was a good idea to include the subject’s surroundings in the shot. But we read it quite differently. The feeling we pick up (and can’t help picking up) comes from formal properties that almost certainly weren’t intended to carry it—properties that, before these pictures got yanked out of their original context, didn’t carry it. 

Now that is a strange state of affairs. Nobody created the feeling. However, I took it from there. Part of what snapshot collectors notice, choose, and assemble has to do with emotional tone. Here I’ve drawn attention to one such tone (which might not have been that striking in any one picture) by bringing together a lot of examples of it.

And, more broadly, I’m also trying to draw attention to this aspect of what snapshot collectors do, or can do. Artists who use found objects are usually interested in something about the look of them (as opposed to the mere fact of them). Duchamp’s original readymades are a good example—their elegance is part of the joke. But snapshots, which are found objects of a kind, have not just a found look, but a found emotional tone. Does any other kind of found object give you that to play with? I don’t think so.

For more information on Joel Rotenberg, and other guest bloggers, click here. 


  1. An important contribution to getting at what makes the snapshot so elusive yet haunting. It is a fascinating endeavor to try to make sense of photos which have been displaced from their original context and given another life in the hands of a collector. To see one's collected images sorted and paired with other similar photos is like being handed a key to the inner life of image making and image taking. How we respond to the photo is as important as what we "see" in the photo.

  2. There are some beautiful photographs here and I agree with Joel Rotenberg's last statement in particular. The elusiveness that Robert Jackson refers to has a lot to do with that gut feeling we have when we alight upon particular photographs. It may be hard to describe but I recognize it in these images. Excellent post.

  3. Brilliant set of images, and provocative post. When seen out of context in a group, these images also give the merest glimpse into the inner lives of the photographer and of the subject of the image. ..

  4. These are a great selection Joel, and commentary. I think the feeling or attraction with this group is one I tend towards regularly which is the singular object or person either lost in the vast landscape or the small but vast world that surrounds it/him/her(such as the cornered woman in the kitchen). Yes indeed Robert, haunting, and also attractive, for me as a group or alone. I believe I came into this love of photo collecting as if I was being drawn into each photo to discover its mystery world that not unlike an episode I once saw in twilight zone where a person entered a painting and stayed there. My entrance and exit into that world is part feeling and part discovery. For me its mostly about mystery. Thanks for sparking mine with these.