A Work of Art

G. Botsford: Untitled, 1971

For many years my late husband, Gardner Botsford, kept a small black-and-white snapshot on his desk of a man and woman wearing shorts, walking one behind the other on a tennis court. I didn’t know who the couple were but assumed they were friends from Gardner’s life before our marriage, people he had been close to and fond of. One day I asked him who they were and he laughed and said he had no idea. He had plucked the picture from a pile of rejects on their way to the wastebasket. It had leaped out at him as an example of an outstandingly terrible snapshot, one that had everything the matter with it. The couple had their backs to the camera; the tennis court showed a few white lines; there were undifferentiated shrubs and trees edging one side of the asphalt. That was all. I saw what my husband saw and laughed with him. There was no reason for the existence of this picture. Keeping it was a wonderful exercise in absurdism.

A few years later, in 1980, I had occasion to think of this picture in a new way. I was selecting illustrations for the title essay of Diana and Nikon, a collection of my pieces on photography, which had run unillustrated in The New Yorker. One of the key moments in the essay was a discussion of a new kind of avant-garde photography that took its inspiration—and to all intents and purposes was indistinguishable—from the home snapshot. Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Emmet Gowin, Lee Friedlander, Joel Meyerowitz, and Nancy Rexroth were among the practitioners of this school of deliberately artless photography that had recently been celebrated in a book called The Snapshot published by Aperture. In his introduction, the editor, Jonathan Green, felt impelled to inform the reader that the photographers represented in the book were “not snapshooters but sophisticated photographers.” The most sophisticated among them, perhaps, was Rexroth, who used a $1.50 toy camera called the Diana (thus my title) that also came in a model that squirted water when you pressed the shutter.

In Diana and Nikon I reproduced four pictures from The Snapshot to illustrate the new aesthetic. Except that one of the pictures was not actually from the book, but from Gardner’s desk: the snapshot of the couple on the tennis court. The temptation was too great. The gates stood too wide open. When the book appeared, there on pages 70–71, illustrating the work of The Snapshot’s “sophisticated photographers,” was a spread of four pictures with the captions under them of Joel Meyerowitz, Untitled; Robert Frank, Untitled; Nancy Rexroth, Streaming Window, Washington D.C., 1972; and G. Botsford, Untitled, 1971.

The reader may be wondering how this act of mischief could have gone undetected. Didn’t anyone at David Godine, the book’s publisher, notice? Or was the estimable…

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