Fotograf Magazine

The Lives of Images

Snapshots perform the role of witnesses. They exist as proof that the event which they record has indeed taken place, and are presented as such. Carefully assembled in a family album, they chart the life of an individual from their very first steps, through the loves and achievements of their life, to the serenity of old age. In her book Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images (2013) the US writer and visual theorist Cathrine Zuromskis deals precisely with this type of seemingly banal photography – impromptu photos, or snapshots. However, a reader hopeful that Snapshot Photography might offer a critical reflection on the role of the snapshot in the digital age will be disappointed. Even the most up to date examples cited in the book are at least a decade old, and the digital transformation of photography is discussed by the author only very marginally, in just the final eight pages.

As the sub-heading The Lives of Images indicates, what Zuromskis offers is instead an anthropological study of the inner life of snapshots, a survey of the norms and conventions inherent within this form of photography. From the moment in 1900 when Kodak launched its popular Kodak Brownie camera, a strict canon of snapshot photography began to develop, a canon which deliberately leaves out negative emotions, situations of crisis, or death. In more than a century of its existence, this canon has seen only negligible changes. Thus, according to Zuromkis, everyone who takes up the camera in order to immortalize an unrepeatable family moment as a form of testimony for the future generations is not engaged simply in producing a mere record of reality. By default, strict cultural conventions are implied within such an undertaking, cuing the photographer as to how and at whom to point the camera, and which scenes are worth recording for posterity. The real-life drama behind all those smiling pictures, however, remains as a rule hidden from the viewer. By definition, life as recorded by the snapshot is an idealized image of reality.

Based on this definition of the genre, Zuromkis analyzes two intriguing aspects of the snapshot. One is the peculiar didactic character of the snapshot, the primary use of which is purely private, addressed to a select circle of viewers. On the other hand, snapshots also function as the public presentation of a narrowly defined group of people, reiterating the visual stereotypes present in hundreds of thousands of similar photographs. At the same time, these common attributes may be interpreted in very different ways.

To Zuromskis, the focal point of the snapshot is the child, the epitome of the continuity of the family and the affirmation of social norms. And it is precisely photographs of children, which may in a different context take on various meanings. If one comes across a picture showing children without bathing suits in a family album, we find these seaside frolics perfectly innocent. Yet if the same image was to be found pasted to the bathroom mirror of a single childless forty-something male, this picture could evoke different meanings, taken to the extreme even bordering on child pornography. As with any normative order, according to Zuromkis, the genre of the snapshot is also home to photographers who violate the given set of rules. And these examples are by no means necessarily as straightforward as child pornography. Various forms of deviation from the norm are produced even by banal technical faults, such as lack of focus, the red eye effect, or the very common accidental close-up of a part of the thumb.

Apart from these unintentional deviations from the norm, however, there are snapshots that break from the idealized canon deliberately. Photographs in this category are mostly pictures that ostensibly pretend to be snapshots while systematically exploiting the snapshot aesthetic. It is to these “deliberate trespassers” that Zuromkis dedicates almost the entire second half of her book. Here she deals primarily with the work of two artists – the systematic documentation of the New York artistic underground in Andy Warhol’s Polaroids, and the diary-style photographs of Nan Goldin. Whereas in the first part of her book Zuromkis showcases her social concept of the snapshot in ample detail, using meticulously well-chosen examples, in part two it becomes impossible to not feel that the works of both Warhol and Goldin have little in common with the snapshot as previously defined by Zuromkis. Although both artists chiefly used amateur devices, their motivation was radically different from that of the usual point-and-shoot amateur. In the case of both Warhol and Goldin this device was first and foremost part of a larger artistic concept.

An excellent monograph nonetheless, Snapshot Photography examines a major social phenomenon, which particularly today, in an era over-saturated with images, plays a unique role. Moreover, the successful exhibitions of snapshots in recent years reveal that this long overlooked “low” genre has been enjoying critical reappraisal. For this reason, Zuromkis dedicates a chapter to the possible ways of presenting snapshots in galleries, listing the blockbuster exhibitions of snapshot photography over the last fifty years. Still, she devotes minimal attention to the present time, when the snapshot is a driving force of social networks such as Instagram, and the staple of Facebook users’ albums. Zuromkis simply states that with the transition to digital technologies, the snapshot has changed only to the degree that there is more of it, the technical faults are reduced, and that it has gained the potential to reach wider audiences.

Sandra Štefaniková