A photographic double-exposure is created when the same piece of film is exposed twice, such that two images are superimposed on top of each other. This often occurs because of a mistake in the manual winding of film to the next frame. As found in the snapshot, the result can be the creation of an amazing piece of unintentional genius which is viewed as an artistic achievement by many collectors. But the double-exposure, accidently created via the mechanics of taking a photo, is more often than not removed from any real artistic inclination on the part of the photographer. It is not related to what the photographer saw, but rather to what the camera saw. In other words, the photographer took the photo (or photos), but the camera made the resulting double image. And yet it is the snapshot collector who provides the final stamp of approval that the mechanical “mistake” is worthy of being sought after, bought, and elevated to a proud place in his or her collection. Of course the mere fact that the photograph still exists is due to some sort of selection process in which the snapshooter engaged—that is the decision to keep the photo instead of throwing it away. However, one should be cautious about giving the original owner of the photo too much credit.
In any case, these mysterious and enigmatic photos thankfully remain to be appreciated and read as strange photographic hieroglyphics-the viewer having often to visually decode the piece in an attempt to appreciate it as more than the sum of its parts. The viewer sees in the double-exposure what is desired to be seen. The result is a more personal and subjective response to the visual information provided within the photo than is often found within the straightforward narrative of the snapshot. Thus, in my mind, the double-exposure has the distinction of being the rarest and most visually complex image found within snapshots.
But outside of a small group of passionate collectors, there is not much critical interest in this snapshot genre. Museum curators, while they might like the images personally, are not really ready to devote much wall space exclusively to the images; and academics are not inclined to devote much critical thought to the subject of double-exposures. This is because the images were created by a mechanical failure of a machine and as such are immune to some visual or historical context in which the curator or academic can place them. The double-exposure image is an accident, pure and simple (and one has to be careful to distinguish a double-exposure from a trick photo where there was true intent by the photographer involved). You cannot compare such photos to imagery which the photographer might have seen and thus imply that they are historically relevant in some manner. These photos don’t have a sociological basis for their creation. They aren’t tied to some cultural influence. They don’t speak to the emergence of an awakening of creativity and empowerment related to gender identity or sexual preference. They didn’t happen as a response to the emergence of the American Dream and the economic impulses to document wealth or status. In sum, they exist apart from history itself. Yes, they might resonate via the accidental strains found in the art of Surrealism and Dadaism and the shifting planes of imagery as seen in Cubism and photocollage, but such visual precedents perhaps only account for why the double- exposure has been saved and appreciated. It doesn’t explain why they exist and can be so haunting and compelling. Thus they provide the community of academics and museum curators with a problem related to artistic intent and influence. They are pure imagery in its most basic form. And they can be unlike anything found in the photographic world.