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Move Closer, Please’

The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson

an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., October 7–December 31, 2007, and the Amon Carter Museum, Forth Worth, Texas, February 16–April 27, 2008.
Catalog of the exhibition by Sarah Greenough and Diane Waggoner, with Sarah Kennel and Matthew S. Witkovsky
National Gallery of Art/Princeton University Press, 294 pp., $55.00; $45.00 (paper)

In the early nineteenth century, if a bird came into view and a hunter fired without having time to aim deliberately, the hunter was said to have taken a snapshot. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, Sir John Herschel applied the term to photography in 1860. Herschel, who also coined the word “photographic,” was speculating about future possibilities; at the time, it was difficult to act on a sudden picture-taking impulse. Many cameras were bulky, because they had to be large enough to hold the chemically treated metal or paper that was sensitive to light and either matched in size, or itself became, the image finally displayed.

The chemistry involved was also cumbersome, though there were several processes to choose from. Before taking a daguerreotype, a photographer had to fumigate with iodine a silver-plated sheet of copper. In the British technique of calotypy, paper negatives were coated with silver nitrate, dried, and stored ahead of time, allowing a limited degree of spontaneity for those who prepared in advance. But the paper’s fibers blurred the image. Many therefore preferred the wet-collodion process, in which a glass plate was covered with a sticky, transparent substance, soaked in a silver nitrate solution, loaded in a camera while still damp, and developed immediately after exposure. The results were sharp, but photographers either had to stay near a darkroom or cart a portable one around with them. No chemical preparation was then sensitive enough to record a person unwilling or unable to keep still. “Were you ever daguerreotyped, O immortal man?” Emerson asked his journal in 1841.

And in your zeal not to blur the image, did you keep every finger in its place with such energy that your hands became clenched as for fight or despair,…and the eyes fixed as they are fixed in a fit, in madness, or in death?

Yet there is arguably one photograph that can be called a snapshot in “Impressed by Light,” the recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of calotypes made between 1840 and 1860. It is an 1846 picture of the grounds of a villa in Naples taken by Christopher Rice Mansel “Kit” Talbot. Known in his day as “the wealthiest commoner” in Britain, Kit Talbot came into his money by inheritance and became acquainted with photography through his cousin William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented not only calotypy but also the process of making multiple prints from a single negative. In his Naples photo, Kit left the aperture of his camera open for five minutes, so it isn’t speed that qualifies the image as a snapshot. It’s rather that he doesn’t seem to have cared whether his technique was any good.

The insouciance shows. Whereas the blur in most calotypes seems painterly—a pleasant scumble over rocks, dirt, grass, and bark, all of whose texture is finely displayed—the blur in Kit Talbot’s is just blur. Excess light erases tree trunks and most of a statue’s definition. A girl in the foreground is translucent, probably because she wandered off halfway through the exposure. So blobby are the forms that the image suggests no depth, no spatial complexity. Yet it does convey a mood—warmth and idleness in southern Italy. It charms, perhaps because the viewer senses that it was rare in 1846 to be so casual about photography. Only someone very well-to-do was likely to acquire all the equipment and yet not bother to learn how to use it properly. Kit Talbot’s effort was a glimpse of photography’s future: sloppy, emotional, chancy, and often associated with vacations.

That future was brought about in large part by a former bank clerk named George Eastman, as curator Diane Waggoner recounts in her contribution to the catalog of “The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978,” the recent exhibition at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. In 1881, Eastman began selling gelatin dry plates in America. As the name suggests, dry plates didn’t have to be wet to work. They were also more sensitive to light, cutting exposure times to fractions of a second. Suddenly it was possible to capture the world impromptu. Cameras shrank, making them more portable, and manufacturers began to call the handheld ones “detective cameras.” The disc-shaped Concealed Vest Camera, one inch thick and five inches wide, fit under a gentleman’s waistcoat like an extra layer of paunch, its lens poking discreetly through a buttonhole.

Amateurs still had to develop pictures in darkrooms in their own basements, however, and relatively few were willing to work so hard for a mere pastime. Eastman’s breakthrough was to offer photographic processing as a service. In 1888, he started selling a small, boxy detective camera he called a Kodak, a made-up word perhaps inspired by his fondness for the first letter of his mother’s maiden name, Kilbourn. Neither focus nor aperture could be adjusted. Inside was a roll of paper with a light-sensitive emulsion, long enough for one hundred circular images. Once the customer finished taking pictures, she sent the unopened camera to Eastman’s factory, which developed the emulsion into negative images, transferred them to see-through gelatin, and made prints. The camera cost $25.00; a round of processing, $10.00. “You press the button,” Eastman’s ads explained, “we do the rest.” It was no longer necessary for photographers to know anything about optics or chemistry. “Anybody can use it,” an early promotional booklet boasted. “Everybody will use it.” Eastman was soon selling thousands.

Eastman steadily brought new technologies to market, leasing and buying patents when necessary, and his cameras became even easier to use. In 1889 he replaced paper-backed negatives with cellulose film. In 1891, he introduced a camera that could be loaded with film in daylight. In 1895 he sold a pocket camera less than four inches long. His genius, however, was for marketing, which he aimed largely at women and children. As early as 1893, Kodak ads featured a young woman known as the “Kodak Girl,” by turns stylish, free-spirited, and domestic. And in 1900, Eastman’s company released the Brownie, a one-dollar camera named after a playful community of cartoon sprites, although Eastman never paid or credited Palmer Cox, the illustrator who had first adapted the sprites from Scottish folklore and popularized them.

Eastman himself was portrayed in the promotional material for the Brownie as an amiable demiurge who reproduced for the sprites a box with the power to revive the past and record the present. As the critic Marc Olivier recently observed, the tale suggested that children could hopscotch directly from the oral world of folktales to the visual one of the twentieth century, bypassing literacy altogether.1 The air of nonthreatening magic and the low price attracted customers of all ages, and Kodak was to manufacture Brownies for the next half-century. Photography was on the way to becoming “almost as widely practiced as sex and dancing,” as Susan Sontag put it in these pages in 1973. According to one estimate, the inflation-adjusted cost of a new camera in 1939 was “almost one hundredth of that of the first Kodak camera in 1888, bringing it within the reach of virtually every home.”2

The new photographs had an appealing lack of finish. Liberated from the special chair whose metal ring had immobilized subjects’ heads from behind, people invented new, much less formal poses. In a delicate image from around 1900, included in the National Gallery’s exhibition, a young woman in a black dress sits in a patch of tall grass and leans against a white clapboard building. The grass is unruly, the clapboard is plain, and the dress, which may be a nun’s habit given the crucifix and three linked rings on the woman’s chest, is so dark that it simplifies her body almost to a silhouette. But it evokes the idea of a contemplative life in harmony with nature more strongly than any formal portrait could. Elsewhere the new freedom contributes to a sort of homemade surrealism. Half-transformed tadpoles drift in a round glass vase. Two young men in matching outfits sit Indian-style side by side in an unkempt field, holding both pairs of each other’s hands so that their arms form a W, with a wooden clothespin dropped like a clue in front of them.

The photographer whose knowledge has been confined to pressing the button can never hope to make good pictures,” according to a camera manual of the 1890s. For a while, Waggoner explains, the serious amateur tried to maintain a distinction between his timed exposures, which were considered artful, and the snapshooter’s instantaneous ones, deemed relatively thoughtless. But film speeds improved, and soon all but a few photographs were instantaneous.

That left only skill and art. Here time has not been kind to the serious amateur, who aspired to a kind of beauty that to a modern eye looks accomplished but insipid. There are a number of examples in Anonymous: Enigmatic Images from Unknown Photographers3: moonlit forests, Paris in the fog, children posed in allegorical costumes. Because the serious amateur made a point of not compromising his images with the mundane, he is seldom of use to social historians. For documentary and aesthetic purposes, one turns instead to photographers who had no idea what they were doing—who “had the advantage of having nothing to unlearn,” as the curator and photographer John Szarkowski once put it.

These photographers made mistakes. One scholar of the snapshot has catalogued the classic ones, including a tilted horizon, unconventional cropping, eccentric framing, a distant subject, blur, double exposure, light leaks, a finger over the lens, banality, and the photographer’s shadow.4 Nearly all these features appear in the snapshots at the National Gallery of Art and in the exhibition’s catalog. In a snapshot taken around 1930, for example, a photographer appears to have tried to reproduce a Victorian-era portrait by photographing it being held by a pair of hands against an automobile door. He seems to have misjudged the framing, however, and the tiny portrait at the center of the photograph—a couple in formal dress, separated by a garden gate—appears as a mere detail, no more prominent than the large hands holding it in place. By accident, the polish of the car reflects the photographer, hunched over his device, as well as a tall, skeletal structure behind him, which might be either an electrical tower or a windmill. It fails as a reproduction, but suggests an allegory of the past’s diminished place in the present—not as reflective of us as of the glossy new surfaces of the modern world.

Similar effects appear—though by calculation rather than accident—in twentieth-century art photography: Garry Winogrand is famous for tilted horizons; Lee Friedlander for photographing his own shadow. Among the works included in the first installation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography,5 a 1996 portrait by Sharon Lockhart of a man in his early thirties has an offhand pose that suggests a snapshot’s casualness; his arms are akimbo, his mouth slack, and his hair stringy. He is standing in what seems to be a hotel room with plate glass windows, high above the street, and the room is projected by the glass’s reflection into the city dusk behind him. The mastery of lighting and camera angle would be hard for an amateur to match, but the style and mood of the image—posed as if unposed, as if offering a glimpse only available to an intimate or a voyeur—are clearly influenced by snapshooters. How is it that the art of photography today owes so much to those who didn’t master the technology?

  1. 1

    Marc Olivier, “George Eastman’s Modern Stone-Age Family: Snapshot Photography and the Brownie,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 48, No. 1 (January 2007).

  2. 2

    Brian Coe and Paul Gates, The Snapshot Photograph: The Rise of Popular Photography, 1888–1939 (London: Ash and Grant, 1977), p. 46.

  3. 3

    Edited by Robert Flynn Johnson (Thames and Hudson), 2004).

  4. 4

    Graham King, Say “Cheese”! Looking at Snapshots in a New Way (Dodd, Mead, 1984), pp. 49–57. Dozens of snapshots with photographers’ shadows are reproduced in Jeffrey Fraenkel’s The Book of Shadows (Fraenkel Gallery/DAP, 2007). In a photo of a handsome, shirtless boy at the start of the book, the shadow of the picture taker—as young and fit as his subject, to judge by his outline—falls on the wall beside him like a companion.

  5. 5

    Depth of Field: Modern Photography at the Metropolitan,” September 25, 2007–March 23, 2008.

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