Selfie Pair

Cameras allow discovery. This is especially true with new technologies like digital cameras. When affixing an image, cameras change the way we see the world. This is understandable, since photography turns a three-dimensional view into a flat, two dimensional image.

This snapshot of two children’s faces speaks of this change. The face on the right distorts because it is close to the camera’s lens. Such alterations are not mistakes but, as James Joyce put it, “portals of discovery”. They draw our attention to the process, to the distortion through which we learn that our normal way of seeing is just one of many possibilities. Such were the lessons Picasso and Braque learned from snapshots made early in the twentieth century. These two children, playing with their father’s smart-phone, make a similar discovery a century later.

Photo Courtesy of Kevin Johnson

The Poignancy of Not Knowing

The softness caused by camera shake at the moment of the exposure, the resulting lack of definition, the woman’s dark coat and hat—these elements set up a tension we, the viewers, are challenged to resolve. However, there is no clue to help us along. The woman’s face seems close to tears, although we cannot say for certain. But our empathy causes our identification with the figure. We would help if we could. But is our empathy welcome and proper?

This snapshot is like a novel where we learn about the character without being certain of anything. Is our empathy or interest misplaced? Are we invading this person’s privacy? We are left with unanswered—and unanswerable—questions. All we can do is wonder.

A Trip to the Top

The man’s hair is immaculately styled by some goop and careful combing; the two girls’ hair is carefully curled and arranged. This is a family who pays attention to appearances, borrowing patterns of clothes and behavior from the popular magazines—LIFE and LOOK—of the 1950s or 60s.

No one is looking at the camera in this scene. The girls are looking up at the man, presumably their father, as he takes in an unseen view through the telescope. This image was from a 35 mm slide and bears the visual qualities of that time period when film cameras allowed casual photographers more sophisticated tools. The colors are often surreal, depending on which manufacturer’s film one was using.

PMM General Collection

Life Imitates Art

The women shown here must be mother and daughter. Their smiles are much alike. The teasing looks, the innocent exposure of a knee, speak of the influence of movies. The style of their clothes suggests that this snapshot is from the era when images from cinema and magazines held more sway over public consciousness than from the television screen; such imagery suffuses our dreams, fears, and expectations. This is how young girls define their femininity, and how young boys dream of manhood.

Snapshots are one part of a cycle of advertising, illustration, and movies. Art directors at ad agencies know that familiar images touch viewers with greater power than ones to which the viewer has no connections. Movie directors know the same. This is why snapshots borrow details from movies and advertisements, while advertisements and movies borrow imagery from snapshots.

PMM General Collection

Communion Day

Religious symbols touch us deeply, even if our faith is different from the photographer’s. The young girl’s dress and white veil are self-evidently related to her communion, but the photograph does not stop there. Elements in the building behind the figure reflect the religious motif. The girl is centered in front of a post which intersects the balustrade and suggests an image of the cross in the photograph.

Religious symbolism has power over us. Think of the Crusaders of the Middle Ages, marching toward Jerusalem. They carried crosses and flags embroidered with the images of saints.

Reaffirming one’s faith is an ever-present demand.

PMM General Collection

20150505 for SMM

Photography has changed how we see the world. No painter would depict a person this way! Only the camera gave us an opportunity to see what is around us in such an informal manner. And few, if any, traditionally trained photographers would have used the camera so. Such a journey of visual discovery is the domain of the snapshot.

This image breaks all the traditional rules of organization: the symmetry, the framing, the prominence of the nose. An emphasis on the imperfections of the skin is not what we expect of an image of a young woman. The zipper and the puckering of the cloth become more important visually than she is.

But, and this is an important point, this Polaroid photograph shows a fragment as we see it in close proximity when the details take over. The purpose of art has always been to make us attentive to aspects of our world we should otherwise miss.

Photo Courtesy of Kevin Johnson

Girl in Perambulator and Speeding Train

This photograph is puzzling. Was it made by a photographer who loved to see speeding locomotives or was it to record the young girl’s wonder at an engine whizzing by? We will never know but in thinking about the question we may understand the photographer’s mind.

If the photographer wanted to record the little girl’s delight, he probably would have set up his camera to show her face. Hence, it is more likely that the locomotive was the intended subject. Another reason for thinking so is that the photographer knew the exposure needed for the locomotive to blur as it did.

The blur comes from the length of the exposure and the distance from the speeding object. Flying at 40,000 feet, landscape seems to move slowly looking out the airplane’s window, but the edges of the runway whizz by as the plane takes off or lands, even though the plane cruises much faster at high altitudes than it does on the runway.

A photographer who loved fast moving engines is much more likely to be a practiced amateur or a professional than a snap-shooter, although luck is also possible.

PMM General Collection
4208.1

Two Women, One Guy, and a Model A

Personal possessions are common subjects for snapshots. Often, that means houses and cars—cars like this Model A. Despite this fact, our eye is drawn more immediately to the two women and the young man.

The woman with the glasses, whose hand the man holds, is most likely his girlfriend or young wife. The woman on the right, with her left hand on her hip, is undefined as to her connection to the other two. Is she the other woman’s sister? Is she the young man’s sister? And at what are the two women looking?

The possibilities are rich. A writer could write a novel about what brought the three young people together to stand front of the car. And what shall follow?

Painters have used photographs as sketches and as ideas; novelists have done the same. We, the viewers of this snapshot, may ask our own questions.

Eastern Illustrating Collection
LB2010.9.122076

Mr. John Walton, Died in April 1805

Snapshots have typically been records of happy moments. There is an exception to this rule. Tombstones are a common subject of snapshots. In such cases, the photographic print is the connection with the departed. Before photography appeared, only wealthy people knew how their ancestors looked. Ordinary folk could not afford to hire a painter. So when snapshot cameras became available, in lieu of the ancestor, his tombstone was recorded.

In this photograph, the most interesting detail is the headless person standing behind the monument, his hands tenderly caressing the graven stone. The anonymity of the figure emphasizes the importance of the man interred.

So the photograph tells us more than the tombstone. We do not only learn about Mr. John Walton having died in April 1805, but also that there was a descendant who in later years attended the grave, that he was remembered more than a century after his passing.

Charles Burden Research Collection
R2014.20.29

Black Dog Descending the Stairs

When photography was introduced in 1839, people said that the process would kill painting. As we know almost two centuries later, painting is still alive and well. On the other hand, photography added to painting and the traditional media by presenting a new vision.

Few painters would have included a black dog descending the staircase in front of a Gothic church. But the inclusion in this photograph creates a juxtaposition we would dismiss in life. Seeing it in a picture, we realize the incongruity of bringing unrelated detail together within a frame, as it happens in this circular image or in the rectangular frames of Surrealist painters during the nineteen-twenties and thirties.

John Booras Research Collection
R2014.14.489

Courting in a Carriage

During the 1890s, photography became increasingly popular. Cameras and photographic plates became affordable; the prevailing general prosperity allowed even young men living on Illinois farms to make photographs.

This couple sat as the young man’s brother set up… Read More 

Girl with Cracker

Snapshots have changed with time. People’s tastes have shifted, and technical innovation has altered the cameras people use. In 1963, the Eastman Kodak Company introduced the Instamatic, an easy-load, inexpensively-produced plastic camera for which color or black-and-white film… Read More 

The Wicked Witch of the West With Satchel

To the person who made this photograph around 1900, the building meant wealth, the woman’s black dress, widowhood; a hundred years later, her clothes and hat conjure up of the Wicked Witch of the West. Metaphors change with time. To the lady with the hat and satchel, the dirt driveway was a given; to us, accustomed to asphalt paving, it speaks of rustic living or poverty.

The process of making the photograph also changes. To make this exposure, the photographer likely used a wooden camera mounted on a wooden tripod. The vertical lines of the building and the trees are carefully aligned with the short edges of the frame, requiring considerable care in setting up the camera.

Snapshots from another era remind us of change. Signifiers of wealth and social position alter with time, but we must remember that in the twenty-first century, people make photographs of their widowed shorts-wearing aunts in front of their houses with the same motivation.

PMM General Collection

The Horse’s Ass

We are accustomed to photographs within rectangular frames. The first camera made specifically for amateur photographers in 1888 was designed to produce circular images. The camera was the KODAK #1 and it came loaded with a forerunner of roll film sufficient to make 100 exposures. The camera’s lens projected a wide field, showing nearly everything sharply, unless the photographer shook the camera during exposure.

And that is why the horse’s rump and the building appear equally sharp in this image. The view of a horse from the seat of carriage is new to us who travel in cars. In the late nineteenth century it was the way people saw the world when riding in a horse-drawn wagon.

The building in the background startles with its modernity. It could be a structure from a Star Wars set. It reminds us that we are not the only people to see rapid change in our times—the same happened during the end of the nineteenth century when new architecture and new inventions altered people’s lives.

Couple at Base

The small outbuildings behind these figures have no foundations. They may be at an Army fort where he trains to go overseas to fight the Japanese or the Germans. The attachment between the woman and the man is strong. Look at their… Read More 

A True Snapshot

This seems to be a snapshot—there’s no apparent artifice, although it is a familiar image. It is much like many a Renaissance painting, celebrating future, rejuvenation, and the promise signified by the Christ Child.

It is not only the image… Read More 

The Soldier Stands in the Center

The soldier stands in the center; a flagpole grows from his hat as if he were a symbol of his patriotic dedication. On his newly uniformed body, his belt has not yet found its comfortable, horizontal position. The tent behind him speaks of… Read More