Flipping through the catalogue to the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition The Art of the American Snapshot 1888-1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson, I couldn’t help but hear Paul Simon’s song "Kodachrome" playing in my head. Like Simon’s song, The Art of the American Snapshot sees both the joy and the illusion of the snapshot, which “makes you think all the world's a sunny day,” regardless of the clouds above. By sampling from Robert E. Jackson’s collection of vintage, almost exclusively anonymous photographs, this catalogue and exhibition hold up a mirror to an America documenting itself as it simultaneously strikes the pose it wants to capture, a give and take in which the improving photographic technology fills ever-changing demands at the same time that it shapes those desires. Works by long-dead enthusiasts, such as the self-proclaimed “The Artist” (above), bring the faces of yesterday back to life, allowing us to see them and ourselves more sharply. As the forward to the catalogue puts it, these anonymous pictures “whether by intention or accident, soar above their purely personal associations to reveal more fundamental aspects of American photography and American life.”
Diane Waggoner, co-curator of the exhibition, examines the early age of photography from 1888, the year in which the first Kodak camera was released, to 1919, right after the horrors of World War I. Photography for the masses freed the idea of the portrait from the dour and unsmiling age of formal portraits. “Unlike the earlier conventions of seriousness,” Waggoner writes, “both the experimentation and theatricality of the new snapshots were almost uniformly injected with humor: photography served as an amusement.” Whereas teeth or an open mouth in pictures were considered vulgar before, now smiles and laughter were obligatory. The post mortem photograph previously taken as a family heirloom disappears in this new fascination with life. America’s growing middle class of the early twentieth century finds itself with leisure time on its hands and a Kodak to capture it with. Waggoner and her fellow essayists continually present the views of the “experts” throughout history trying to impose rules on what makes a good photo and the willful breaking of those rules by the amateur snapping away for his or her own pleasure. Waggoner’s essay and those that follow examine in great detail the role of Kodak’s marketing and advertising in shaping the photomania of America, starting with the Brownie, introduced in 1900 and “promoted… primarily, but not exclusively, to children, cultivating a previously untapped market for photography.” The marketing geniuses of Kodak later link photography and leisure, especially travel. As concepts of the family, childhood, and motherhood develop at this time—the aftershocks of the Victorian Age crossing the Atlantic—Kodak seizes these opportunities as well, culminating in the rise of the photo album as the repository of moments and memories forever.
Unknown, c. 1930; gelatin silver print, image: 5.7 x 10 cm (2 1/4 x 3 15/16); sheet: 6.4 x 10.8 cm (2 1/2 x 4 1/4); mount: 6.5 x 10.9 cm (2 9/16 x 4 5/16); National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Robert E. Jackson
In “Quick, Casual, Modern: 1920-1939,” Sarah Kennel picks up the trail and examines the powerful shift at that time to a visual culture in America, “where language was ceding power to image” and “snapshot photography served as an important vehicle through which Americans defined and interrogated their relationship to their rapidly changing environment.” Talking films and Technicolor in 1927, Kodachrome color film in 1936, the display of television at the 1939 World’s Fair—all of these add to the visual mania of the Jazz Age. Kennel sees “the emphasis on self-expression and play” seen in photos of this period, “harmon[izing] with the new technological, social, and consumerist order that rose from the ravages of World War I.” Speed, as captured blurrily in the photograph of the speeding motorcycle above, ruled. Even the Great Depression couldn’t slow down the race to express yourself in photographs as part of the “fast and fragmented pace of modern life.” In fact, the deprivations of the Great Depression and the anxieties of another war on the horizon caused an even greater fetish of the nuclear family, a harmonious illusion that the photograph helped not only to define but also to sustain.
Unknown, July 1951; gelatin silver print, image: 6.9 x 10.1 cm (2 11/16 x 4); sheet: 8.3 x 11.7 cm (3 1/4 x 4 5/8); National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Robert E. Jackson
As television assumed a central role in American culture, Sarah Greenough, co-curator of the exhibit, writes, “seeing became believing in the 1950s, and, more than at any earlier time in American history, people saw through the filter of photography.” The woman photographed in the television set above symbolizes how people of this period came to see themselves as living in one huge reality show, as we know it today. Photography pervades every aspect of American life, growing more and more casual and intrusive. Greenough sees photography at this time transcending its previous role as a definer of customs and traditions (in birthday and wedding photographs, for example) and becoming a self-conscious molder and even transformer of the individual. To illustrate her point, Greenough beautifully strings together a narrative from a suite of photographs taken by a woman identified only as “Flo,” who seemingly struggles to find some community within her apartment building and workplace through candid shots of those around her, who resist her attempts to connect through a lens. The litany of turned heads and covered faces “Flo” endured testifies to the power of photography to make many believe that it was the key to that better life promised in advertising and shown every night on TV. Even the instant gratification of the newly invented Polaroid, “convenient and fast… like the Jolly Green Giant’s frozen vegetables” hawked on TV, couldn’t quench the thirst for the elusive American dream for many.
Unknown, 1960s; chromogenic print, image: 7.9 x 7.9 cm (3 1/8 x 3 1/8); sheet: 8.8 x 8.6 cm (3 7/16 x 3 3/8); Collection of Robert E. Jackson
Matthew S. Witkovsky wraps up the survey with his take on “When the Earth Was Square: 1960-1978.” Witkovsky sees the distinctive square print of the Kodak Instamatic (introduced in 1963) as the defining “look” of the time. The increasing prevalence of color film in the 1960s adds to the illusion of photography as a reflection of “real” life. Behind this curtain, however, Witkovsky finds “a self-conscious delight taken by ordinary people in staging scenes of play.” If life is what you photograph, then the photographs are going to be full of life—staged fun if the real thing isn’t available. Vulgar gestures crop up in the pictures of this time, perhaps not as much a sign of loosening morals as much as a sign of the forced “humor” injected into photography of the 1960s and 1970s as the post-Kennedy, post-Vietnam generations coped with the fissures in the edifice of the American dream, a façade founded in part on an image captured and catapulted by photography and its surrounding visual culture. The photograph of the peace sign above succeeds as an image today in some small part due to the failures of the ideals that sign represented then.
Unknown, 1930s; gelatin silver print, image: 11.1 x 7.2 cm (4 3/8 x 2 13/16); sheet: 12 x 8.4 cm (4 3/4 x 3 5/16); National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Robert E. Jackson
Robert E. Jackson ends his collection at 1978 believing that he’s “too close to the 1980s and beyond to be able to ‘see’ a good snapshot objectively.” Perspective stands at the heart of the analysis of The Art of the Snapshot. These anonymous photographs, free of personal associations and backstories, exist as works of art now, even transparently staged photos as that above of the woman in bed next to an automobile. More importantly, they exist as artifacts of the American visual culture and that culture’s crystallization as the American dream. All Americans unconsciously buy into that dream every waking moment thanks to the constant bombardment of visuals selling us some bill of goods. The photographs of our lives fall into this great river of imagery, the tiny drops that build up and threaten the banks to overflowing. The Art of the American snapshot helps release some of the built up pressure of that imagery by breaking it down and restoring the democratizing power of the photograph, namely its capacity to allow the individual to both record and reformulate their identity with total freedom. At the same time, this catalogue and exhibit threaten to expose the cracks in the concept of American freedom, releasing the dammed up frustrations of those unable to find any true identity within that “dream” turned nightmare. Photography weaves a magical spell that life is as fun and happy as we can picture it. Once that spell is broken, and we see the images as staged rather than “true” (whatever that means), the questions become overwhelming.
Unknown, "This Modernistic point of view shows me in the center. Good?", 1930s; gelatin silver print, image: 10.1 x 5.7 cm (4 x 2 1/4); sheet: 11.4 x 7.1 cm (4 1/2 x 2 13/16); Collection of Robert E. Jackson
The photographs in The Art of the Snapshot show almost exclusively white faces and almost exclusively the middle and upper class enjoying their leisure time and family experience in a way often denied to other races and classes in our history. The faces in photos such as that marked “This Modernist point of view shows me in the center. Good?” (above) self-consciously show that wonderful life and simultaneously beg for affirmation of its existence. Are these photos “good”? Is the life shown in them “good”? More importantly, is it “real” (whatever that means)? When tracing the origin of the term “snapshot” to a hunting term, The Art of the Snapshot recalls the words of photographer Walker Evans after a shooting expedition: “I am stalking, as in the hunt. What a bagful to be taken home.” The Art of the American Snapshot is itself “a bagful to be taken home,” a thoughtful gallery of visions and ideas linked together that we should each sort and reassemble in our mental albums.
[Many thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of this book and to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC for providing me with the images above from the exhibition.]