Defining vernacular photography is highly problematic. In vernacular photography we observe photographs made by amateur photographers rather than professionals, and we take for granted that their intent was not the realisation of a perfect picture for client or exhibition. At the same time, it is not possible to say that this kind of photography is not codified, not structured, not influenced by cultural and social influences. Sometimes these photographs don’t even appear amateurish. We identify vernacular photography merely as old photographs made by people other than professionals photographers, but the issue is clearly more complex than that.
The Oxford Companion to the Photograph describes vernacular photography as: “Aesthetically unpretentious, generally functional images made by amateur snapshooters or grass-roots professionals (e.g. itinerant tintypists, photowallahs, or jobbing local portraitists) for everyday purposes such as creating keepsakes or recording mundane.” I totally disagree with the idea that vernacular photography is aesthetically unpretentious, because I’m convinced that even amateur photographers shoot their images trying to achieve a certain effect and aesthetic, no matter how consciously they do it. One of the central questions about photography is and has been: how consciously can we photograph?
The amateur photographer decides, as does the professional, the subject and the frame of his photograph, and the resulting image is influenced by the culture and social norms of its period. To say that vernacular photography is aesthetically unpretentious is incorrect, because photography is automatically aesthetic. There is nothing natural or innate about photographs or photography, even in a domestic setting.
At times we freely pass vernacular photography off as snapshot photography. Kodak’s famous slogan “you press the button, we do the rest” is a clear statement about the advent of photography as a tool for the masses, and not solely the professionals. The technique has become easy and accessible, but can photography be liberated from any kind of aesthetic? Do snapshot/vernacular/domestic photography possess their own intrinsic aesthetics, or are they the result of our cultural and social moment, imposed by and inseparable from the mechanism, the technique, the idea that we already have images? We interacted with images long before the advent of photography, but for the first time with photography we were allowed to use an easy tool in order to create our own (or we were persuaded to think so).
When we decide to photograph a certain subject we have to face numerous complications. To name a few: the choice and selection of the subject, the setting, the frame, the photographic mechanism (time and exposure). These complications make no exception for amateur photographers.
I’ve recently and inadvertently discovered how much the critique of snapshot photography has changed in the last forty years. The perception of images, and the role of photography as a “democratic” tool have shifted radically, and photography’s democractic nature has been called into question. I’ve discovered two very different books about snapshot photography written in the 1970s. They have very opposite approaches. The first one, called The Snap-shot, was published by Aperture in 1974, edited and introduced by Jonathan Green. The book is a collection of short texts from various professional photographers, among the others Tod Papageorge, Paul Strand, Emmet Gowin, Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand. This book tries to show two different aspects of that “so-called” snapshot photography: the domestic ritual of photographing everyday events, using the familiar environment as a rich ground on which to construct photographic projects (Emmet Gowin, Wendy Snyder Macneil); and the quick and natural reaction to our surroundings, a part of which has been frequently defined as street photography (Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Joel Meyerowitz).
It is correct to say that the term snapshot is in general “uneasy, equivocal, enigmatic”. The first short text in this book is written by Lisette Model. This text is one of the reasons why I would urge caution exploring these books from the Seventies, and their ideas of snapshot photography. Lisette Model wrote: “I am a passionate lover of the snapshot, because of all photographic images it comes closest to truth.” Even if the idea of truthfulness has always been associated with photography, today we are pretty convinced that both professional and amateur images are the result of aspirations, dreams, and natural or induced needs. This means that snapshot photography reveals something about the society of a specific period of time, but at the same time the same image is also a construction of that society, and not a true and absolutely reliable document.
This book by Aperture, is certainly open to this discussion. I would like to assume that Jonathan Green chose to talk about snapshot photography through the voices of professional photographers to question the real meaning of the term. Paul Strand, in fact, wrote: “I have always taken the position that the word snapshot doesn’t really mean anything. To talk about it you almost have to begin by asking: When is a snapshot not a snapshot? When is a photograph not a snapshot?” The book reveals that snapshot photography is here intended more as a technique than as an amateurish practice. The development of photographic cameras made photography accessible to numerous non-professionals, and the result was the production of all kind of images. It is, in the end, an untenable idea that snapshot photography is produced only by accidental, natural and casual attempts made by non-experts and unpretentious photographers.