Snapshots on Photography

Anonymous Was a Photographer

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (October 2, 1998) identifies a hot new category of collectibles: "vernacular photography." According to the Journal, collectors are paying $1-450 for snapshots -- photographic snippets of stranger's lives taken by anonymous amateurs. The first ever "Vernacular Photography Fair" has already come and gone this year, and the established New York Photography Fair opening at the Puck Building October 16 will feature vernacular photographs.

So is it time to dump Grandma's memory drawer and head off to your favorite New York art dealer to cash in on this latest trend? Are you storing a huge unsung collection of "outsider" photography in those albums in the closet? Probably not. The article reports that while the photographer may have been an amateur, only a "trained eye" (read: professional art dealer) has the power to identify a great naïve image -- and to make a buck off it.

Still, it's easy to see why vernacular photographs offer a temptingly affordable alternative to the current hot market for vintage photographs by known photographers. Who can afford a Weston or Modotti, a Stieglitz or Strand? (A Stieglitz portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe recently sold for nearly $400,000.) But surely you could manage a What's-his-name's White Dog at Sunset for $450.

Is this White Dog really art? Ask the photography curator at the San Francisco Museum of Art, who organized an exhibition called "Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life." Then review everything you've learned from Edward Weston and Tina Modotti about composition, light, and style before you start rifling through garage sale albums.

Honey, I Shot the Kids ... and You're Next

I wondered, before I saw her photographs, whether Sally Mann would have gained national prominence if she'd taken photographs of someone else's naked children rather than her own. Or if she'd dressed them up a bit before snapping the shutter (or turned their backsides to the camera). Or if she'd concentrated only on empty landscapes of her beloved South, and not her beloved children.

photograph by Sally Mann

But after seeing two exhibitions of her work, one in New York and the current show called "Still Time" at AMOA -- Laguna Gloria, I believe Mann was destined for recognition (and praise!) with or without that particular body of her work. Her photographs -- whether romantic landscapes or sly glances from strangers or family members -- contain hauntingly beautiful images. They are, in fact, universally accessible (whether we like it or not) because they are so very personal.

The most interesting photograph to me is The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude (1987), which represents a bridge between Mann's various obsessions, Southern landscape and Southern folk. Emmett, the photographer's son -- a beautiful young man who is perhaps nine years old in this particular black-and-white photograph -- challenges the camera with a stare. Rather than being fully exposed, he appears to be "wearing" the lake or the pond -- whatever body of water he's standing in -- around his middle, emerging like a young god from his surroundings, dark waters and a mysterious wood. The setting foreshadows the masterful, murky, child-free photos of Virginia and Georgia that Mann took in the mid-Nineties and which comprise "Mother Land," an exhibition and catalog prepared by the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York.

I was sorry to have missed the photographer's September 20 lecture here in Austin. I was told that she showed slides of "personal photographs" as well as other works she makes for public consumption. It is intriguing to imagine how Mann might distinguish the personal from the public, given her body of work. Her next series, my informant went on to say, deals with relationships between men and women and -- you guessed it -- she will be photographing her own husband and herself.

Learning From Grandpa

When my own children were young, our family photo sessions recurred like a familiar nightmare: Grandpa with his camera interrupts the holiday meal so he can focus and shoot. Half the people at the table are forced to stand and rearrange themselves so we all fit into the picture. Someone complains that she looks too fat (or ugly or pregnant or old) to be photographed and must be coaxed back into the room. The guest-nobody-likes is pushed off to the side like a tumor on the family elbow. The photographer, soon offended by the griping, slows his pace even more, then refuses to talk to the rest of us during the remainder of dinner.

Does any of this sound familiar?

"Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing," says Susan Sontag in On Photography, a must-read book of essays on the subject. She is referring here to you and me, amateurs all. "Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself." She goes on to say, "Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive."

Grandpa's addiction led the adults and children in my family to cringe at the sight of his camera, and he didn't seem to enjoy the process much either. So why did we re-enact the same drama, at every holiday meal year after year? Certainly not to create a snapshot that would make its way into someone's collection of vernacular photographs! And not to produce an objet d'art, either. We leave it to photographers like Weston and Modotti and Mann to "capture the moment" for posterity. We leave it to professional photographers to shave a piece of time out of the continuum and preserve it on paper, to carefully frame their vision and concern themselves with form, to balance light against dark, to worry about depth of field.

Grandpa was never worried about preserving a particular moment. When his shutter finally opened and closed, he was bent on saving memories of everything that had occurred before the photo was taken for all those who would come after. He was making pictures for his grandchildren to show their children as they repeated family lore.

In a video interview with Sally Mann (available in the AMOA -- Laguna Gloria galleries), the photographer is asked to comment on the nude photographs she has taken of her children. She makes no apologies. "I can't chase after these pictures and explain," she says. And she doesn't need to do it. Each image has sufficient visual presence to live by itself in a world of strangers, to find common ground, to make its own aesthetic case.

Our family photos, on the other hand, were never intended to be stand-alone objects, but to be passed as treasures from one generation to the next along with stories and tears. (Too bad for Grandpa that some of our memories of him are less than flattering.) Without family to set the scene before and after each one was taken, these snapshots lose their value. Unless, of course, you're intent on keeping up with the latest Art World trends.

"Modotti and Weston: Mexicanidad" is on display at the Austin Museum of Art -- Downtown, 823 Congress, through October 25.

"Still Time: Photographs by Sally Mann" is on display at the Austin Museum of Art -- Laguna Gloria, 3809 W. 35th, through November 8. Call 458-8191 for information.

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