One of my latest discoveries from Amazon online bookshop is a piece of work called the American Snapshots by Ken Graves and Mitchell Payne (1977). This fabulous book introduces a collection of pictures gathered in the 1970s from ordinary people in the United States. The authors were brave enough to go around neighborhoods and knock on doors, asking to see people’s photos in black paged albums and shoe boxes. The resulting book is both humorous and a warm-hearted compilation of the American life back in the days.
As I went through the book for the second time, I tried to figure out the selection process; how did Graves and Payne choose these particular photos over a countless amount of other possibilities? Without finding any common factors, I was forced to see what was said in the introduction part of the book. In their own words, they were on a search for pictures which were complete visual statements, needing neither explanation nor rationalization.
“We picked images which were extraordinary for us, relying on our own photographic intuition and sensitivity.”
Reading the forewords of the authors made me look at my own snapshots from recent history. How many shots do I have that are complete visual elements that need no further explanation? Are they also photographs, that would interest other people outside of my family and friends? Do I myself, possess a convincing photographic intuition and sensitivity?
Having said that, I realize the fogginess of my own questions. Just as much as I tried to find some rules for esthetics in 2012 as a novice Ph.D. student, this question of extraordinary photography is like trying to shovel water from a hole in the ground (see “punctum” by Roland Barthes 1980). It just keeps streaming back. It’s like for a short moment you might think you kind of have an idea and a grip of the issue, but in the background something is not working. The tools are there; so many have written about it, but at the end of the day you know there’s no all-inclusive solution. You find one rule, but then right after, some witty artist has intentionally proven that the rule isn’t very waterproof. And of course, esthetics as well as finding extraordinary photos, they are both very personal questions and culturally related, too. This is notable just by looking at the pictures in the book. Some are more interesting to me than others. I could imagine every individual finding their own favorites.
Finally, there’s the question of captions and overlaid texts. They are obviously a big part of visual communication like in this sample from the described book. An elderly couple photographed in front of their home. With the humorous image, the caption “Greetings from our home to yours!” just makes this image so much more. Would this image be as interested without the text?
In summary, I think it’s right here, where we’re just in the core of the charm and the allure of vernacular photography. Some snapshots are extraordinary; they have a remarkable appeal for example in the form of coincidence, humor, narrative, humanity or esthetics to mention a few. Looking at home mode photography is not only about technical issues, such as light, composition, camera etc. It’s much more. One can master the art of photography, be rewarded for being a skillful photojournalist, but in non-professional photography, there’s this broad field of accidental photography taken without full self-consciousness of what’s going on that is absurdly interesting.