Wednesday, June 12, 2013


I don’t know about you, but I have a soft, soft spot for those felicitous accidents that snapshots, alone among photographs, allowed and even encouraged. The most obvious of these happened because snapshot photography was such a profoundly lo-fi medium—the process was a minefield of random technical noise from start to finish. The cameras were primitive or at least simple and didn’t always do what was asked of them; development and printing were slapdash and full of hazards; and very often the finished prints were neglected and subject to wear and damage. All these impersonal factors could work in a photo’s favor, even create the point of interest from our perspective. Here’s an example.

A bit less obviously, there were also accidents that someone actually had something to do with—the accidents of camera handling, composition, and so forth that resulted from the indiscriminate technique and low standards of the snapshooters. Here’s one of those.

How does any of that apply to this snapshot? 

It doesn’t. The picture is technically as perfect as anyone could expect, and we might as well assume that it represents the snapshooter’s intention accurately.
Nevertheless, it is accidental in one all-important way. It is accidental in the sense that it happens to resemble an art photo from my or our point of view. We have every reason to believe it was intended as one kind of photo, but it was lucky enough to (eventually) look like another kind of photo.
In fact the picture got so lucky that it accidentally gained entree to an aesthetic subgenre that enjoys some popularity today, the “faceless” snapshot. The snapshooter couldn’t have dreamed that we in the present would care about the photo that way. There’s a huge number of more private subgenres; most snapshot collectors have some specialized aesthetic tastes that are pretty much theirs alone. They may not ever have put their preferences into words. They may just say, “I like this photo.” But a snapshot is unimaginably lucky if a collector likes it—that is, if a collector feels like pulling it out of its original context and placing it in his or her own.
Otherwise put: this photo is a found photo, a kind of found object. A found object, by definition, plays on an accident that allows it to move from one context to another.
Found objects have existed since 1914, when Marcel Duchamp spotted this bottle rack in a hardware store. 

Now, someone created this object with eyes wide open, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that anonymous industrial designer wanted it to look good as well as do its job. But its resemblance to sculpture is still accidental. Duchamp thought that was funny, and, making a sort of revolutionary joke, he presented it as art.
We do the same with found photos. We are not necessarily making a joke, and the revolutionary tinge of our recontextualization has faded a good deal in the century since Duchamp. However, we are still taking non-art that accidentally looks like some modern idea of art and presenting it as exactly that. In so doing we are not necessarily saying that someone didn’t make that non-art deliberately. We are just saying they didn’t make it as art.
So far I am simply laying out what found photos are, strictly speaking. Accident is part of the idea. But are we treating all snapshots—all the photos taken with snapshot cameras that we are able to appreciate aesthetically—as found photos? Are we twisting them all, or are there some that we can appreciate straightforwardly the way they were meant to be?
One promising class of possibilities is the class of altered snapshots. This hand-colored one is a representative example.

Whoever did the tinting knew what they were doing, and I think we can simply say they were good. But of course what we are appreciating is a painting superimposed on a photo. The underlying photo is as odd and as mysteriously intended a snapshot as any I have seen. We look at the photo as a found photo, the painting as a painting. In other cases, of course, the compound object can be a skilled painting on top of a photo that isn’t even interesting enough to be “found.” The underlying distinction is that a painting is always “wrought”—we can see that somebody worked at it; whereas it’s much harder to see that in a photo.
Here’s a more serious case—in fact about as serious a case as I can imagine.

Usually snapshot self-portraits are a genre comparable to mask shots: at the time they were just people goofing, but now they’re an art category (if a rather tired one). Usually, in other words, a snapshot self-portrait is a found photo. But this picture seems to be something special. It’s not implausible to regard it as an incursion from a more art-like photography. I don’t know if Vivian Maier ever took a Kodacolor snapshot, but that’s what this photo looks like—it’s like a Maier self-portrait taken with low-grade (though not too low-grade) equipment and developed in an anonymous lab like every other snapshot.
One good response to this rather startling example would be to say it’s so far out that it proves the rule. But is it even that far out? I’m not sure. I propose two thought experiments:
(1) Imagine this photo with technical values more typical for snapshots: problems from a bad lens, flawed printing, etc. A photo doesn’t tell us why it was made; the information it imparts is not that kind of information. When we do understand why it was made, we come to our conclusions based on factors strictly external to the shot itself—on the way it was made into an actual photograph and the way that photo is presented. For example, a view of a crime scene would have very different meanings as an 8x10 glossy and as a snapshot. When we see a Nan Goldin photo hanging in a gallery, we feel we know why she made it; we would “know” something else about why it was made  if we saw it printed poorly and at reduced size, pasted into someone’s snapshot album. This photo reminds us of art, but it would remind us of art a lot less if its technical values were not exceptional for snapshots.
(2) Imagine the photographer-subject with a silly expression on her face instead of a grave one. In this case we would be much more inclined to class the picture as a well-photographed stunt.
Can those two factors—the relative superiority of the photo’s “production values” and the serious expression on the photographer-subject’s face—really be all that’s telling us the photographer might have intended the photo the way we see it? I believe so. I don’t say she didn’t, you understand—more pictures by the same photographer might clinch the case. But nothing else would.
Let me put this as clearly as possible. A snapshot that we appreciate aesthetically is a found photo—an accident—unless we have to take the snapshooter as seriously as we take the snapshot. And that is incredibly rare. 

Joel Rotenberg
The Art of the Snapshot?