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Will Russack 11/26/12 A History of Photography Through Ideas

The Snapshot as Art Before photography it was not uncommon for a painter to use his wife as his subject, to spend time and effort to create a work of art he was both proud of and inherently connected to. If one were not skilled with a paintbrush, an artist could be hired to produce a painting of ones family, and the resulting picture could be hung and admired equally in either a home or a museum. When photography entered the world, it was not surprising that one of its first widespread uses was making portraits of families. Suddenly, photography allowed families of all social classes to preserve their memories and history in a visual manner. Then the camera was put in the hands of everyday Americans and a whole new genre of photography was born: the snapshot. Anyone with a camera could make pictures of their families and everyday activities. More often than not, these snapshots followed unspoken social constructs, creating hundreds of thousands of images that depicted the same scenes and events. This proliferation of the snapshot was a direct threat to the status of photography as art, and although photography slowly became accepted in the fine art world, the language of the snapshot was reserved for weddings and family albums. This barrier was finally breached when photographers began to use the universal language of the snapshot to explore and uncover intimate and complex

details of life that viewers at once recognized and chose to ignore in their own daily existence. With the invention of the Brownie camera and its subsequent generations, the whole paradigm of photography shifted. No longer did the photograph need to be done in a studio by a trained professional. The camera became mobile and the technology simplified, and a whole world was just waiting to be photographed. People took pictures of mountains they hiked, oceans they swam in, the cars they drove, and famous monuments they visited. As photography grew more popular, so too did the presence and power of the snapshot. Here was a way to aid our neverbig-enough memories: a magical little box that recorded every Christmas morning, birthday party, summer vacation, first steps, marriage, and graduation. And so we made hundreds of photographs of our lives, which when looked at in family albums or on bedside tables constitute an inclusive, democratic portrait of who we are and what we want our lives to be (Grundberg). The incredible singularity of the snapshot means that every familys collection of images looks just like yours or mine. Herein lies the power of the snapshot: its universality and standardized formula allows everyone to speak its language and immediately understand the scene presented1. Perhaps one of the first photographers to utilize the power of the snapshot was Emmet Gowin. Beginning in the mid-sixties, Gowin photographed his children and wife around their home in Danville, Virginia. While many of these photographs

It was of course, the uniformity and general pervasiveness of snapshot photography that critics used as evidence against photographys artistic merits. How could something so easily practiced and understood by the layman be considered art?

seem to be taken in the moment, simply the lucky product of Gowin being present with his camera, there is also a magical and dreamlike quality to his images that cannot be found in any other family album (barring Sally Mann). Consider the image of his daughter Nancy (figure 1). We see a young girl in a sleeveless white dress, which glows brightly against the dark earth in the background. With her eyes closed and her head thrown back, she seems lost deep in her own world. Her arms are twisted in a seemingly impossible manner that verges on grotesque, and in each hand she holds an egg. In another image (figure 2) Gowins pregnant wife and son lie naked in the shallow banks of a river, the opaque water sliding underneath them. His son looks back at us while his wife Edith seems lost in her reflection. Both images are nothing less than scenes from a surreal dreamscape, and yet one cannot deny that the intimacy of the photographs derives from the practice of the snapshot2. The images lay somewhere inbetween a candid moment and elaborate story, seeming completely natural yet entirely unlikely. As Peter Galassi explains in his introduction to Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, To Gowins subjects he is not the photographer but Emmet, and they to him are not types but individuals. What he discovered is that the essential power of the snapshot lies not so much in the candor of style or modesty of subject as in the relationship between photographer and photographed (9). Gowin opened the door to a whole new generation of photographers who would turn the camera on their own families, blurring the line

Gowin writes, Sometimes my photographs resemble home snapshots, which are among the richest resources of images I know.

between snapshot and fine art photograph while opening up their private lives for the world to see. The traditional family snapshot shows times of joy and celebration; weddings and vacations where everyone could relax and forget the problems that plagued their daily lives. Susan Sontag writes that for the masses photography is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, (8). In this way, family snapshots are used to display and uphold the illusion of the nuclear family. At their daughters wedding, a divorced couple may smile and pose together for a photograph, hiding the animosity that lies beneath. In the beginning of the 1980s, photographers began to rebel against that tradition and instead took on the challenge of exploring the issues, tragedies, and complex relationships that were taking place right in their own home. In 1985, the father of photographer Doug Dubois fell from a commuter train in an accident that almost cost him his life. Dubois returned to live at home to help while his father recovered from his debilitating injuries. In an interview about his work, Dubois discusses that upon his return he made pictures just to deal. [Pauses]. Cause it was pretty bad. So I just kept photographing. Upon trying to pictures of his family as he had in the past, Dubois realized that there was now a considerable distance both in miles and in experience, that now existed between my parents and me (Beattie, 66). On New Years Eve, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for a month. Yet this did not stop him from taking pictures. In a photograph of his parents after dinner one night (figure 3), one can sense the stress and sadness that is invading his mother, and his fathers seeming

distant and removed nature to everything happening around him. A second photograph of his sister Lise (figure 4) shows a girl curled up in a towel on a bare bed, starring off into a void that threatens to consume her. In both images, the subjects dont seem to care whether Dubois is there or not; physically he is in the room and making photographs, but psychologically and spiritually he is nowhere to be found. Dubois writes, In my most intimate photographs there is a detachment that speaks of my isolation. I no longer see my family as an assured source of comfort, but as part of the confusion of my adult life (Beattie, 67). Instead of making surface photographs that hide the issues at hand, Dubois pierces through the exterior and brings the viewer right into the turmoil and sadness of his family. 3 Dubois was not alone in trying to deal with family tragedies through photography. Around a similar time, photographer Jill Lynnworths brother Randy was diagnosed with a brain tumor. For the next 5 years, Lynnworth took care of Randy as he slowly lost his battle with cancer. At first, she did not allow herself to make pictures of him. However, she finally gave way and photographed the final six months of his life as a way of letting him live on (Beattie, 97). At first, she explains, her pictures were very clinical. She used the camera as a barrier to seeing what was really happening to him (Beattie, 90). But slowly those photographs gave way to more honest, heartbreaking images that brought the viewer right into the midst of Randys struggle.

Dubois stopped the project when, one week after he made a photograph of his parents at dinner, his mother tried to kill herself. I had made a photograph of her depression, her desperation, without seeing it.I realized that making a photograph is not the same as dealing.

In one image, After the Bath, (figure 5) we see Randy, bald and naked, hunched over a bowl that his dad holds for him. An IV tube snakes out of his body and disappears into the shadows. It is a brutally honest picture about the reality of his struggle, and the viewer almost feels uncomfortable about being given access to such a terrible and private moment. Yet this feeling is what gives power to Lynnworths work: she allows us to see the truth of what goes on behind closed doors. There is no acting or covering up of emotions. All is laid bare for the viewer to see. This idea of exposing the honest realities of regular lives, the dramas and dreams of individuals is what makes these photographs so compelling. Looking at the could-be-staged but might-be-candid photographs of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, we see characters that seem to have been frozen mid-action by some deep desire or unseen regret. In a particularly well-known image (figure 6), we see diCorcias brother looking into a fridge, his face bathed in light. But what we really see, as Galassi writes in an introduction to diCorcias work, is not a man looking for a midnight snack but a man confronting his failures and longings (5). When one realizes that diCorcia carefully plans out his photographs, it raises questions about what we perceive as a snapshot. The confusion arises from the contradiction between how we read the image and deeper meaning it contains. As a viewer it is so easy to relate to diCorcias characters; the look on his brothers face expresses a feeling we have all experienced on late nights where we deeply question ourselves. Yet the environment and subject matter give the photograph a feeling akin to the casual family snapshot that is so recognizable to viewers. diCorcias

ability to create fictional scenes that so accurately reflect our lives is on the one hand a little unsettling, but at the same time gratifying when so many of us can relate. The way diCorcia blurs the lines between fictional and candid scenes is a prime example of the transition that occurred in photography from the modernist to post-modernist movement. While Lynnworth is waiting for the moment within a larger context, diCorcia constructs his own moments while using the snapshot aesthetic to influence how we read the image. Galassi writes that diCorcia found a twilight zonebetween the implied sincerity of the documentary idiom and the unapologetic fictions of pop culture (17). Like Lynnworth, diCorcia was faced with a challenge when his brother was diagnosed with AIDS. Unlike Lynnworth, once his brothers life was threatened diCorcia never took his picture again. Speaking about his decision, diCorcia says, I really wanted to. But I could never do it. I felt I would be exploiting him (Beattie, 70). Perhaps for diCorcia, creating fictitious scenes that imitate reality is important for the very reason that sometimes the reality can be exactly that; too real. diCorcia was not the only one who began setting up photographs to mimic the snapshot aesthetic. Tina Barney, who turned her large format camera on the daily interactions within her upper-class family, creates richly detailed tableaus that also manage to have a casual air about them (figure 7). The photograph, which Barney smartly titles The Landscape, depicts several individuals that are all in the same room, but each is lost in their own world4. A little girl in the foreground appears to be running by, while a paternal figure is seen carrying a small dog and

One is reminded of the way Duboiss family appears to be totally unaware of his presence, lost in their own thoughts.

looking downward. Another man stands reading a magazine, while behind him a young woman reads over his shoulder with probing eyes. None of the characters seem to be aware of the camera or each other, but instead are absorbed in their activities. Although the image reads like a snapshot, in reality it is carefully arranged. The four figures form a near perfect diamond, with each individual existing in his or her own plane. With this arrangement, Barney has orchestrated a careful order for our eyes to follow as they move from foreground to background, figure to figure. By turning her camera on her own family, Barney shows the viewer a world they would otherwise have very limited access to. She demonstrates that wealth does not always bring happiness. Barneys subjects still struggle with problems of loneliness, isolation, and identity in a way that is apparent and accessible to all. Yet the photographs are not illustrations to a sociological report, but beautifully orchestrated scenes that convey an emotion (Galassi). Charles Traub writes, Pictures of family show emotional relations that may not be expressed verbally. Everyone is too busy. Family is always immediate. Theyre passing right in front of us (Beattie). This is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in Barneys work. Looking at photographs by diCorcia and Barney, not to mention others such as Larry Sultan and Sally Mann, the line between simulation and true snapshot is heavily veiled. Their work contains snapshots are often too perfectly composed or fantastic to the point of mythical (Mann, figure 8). Yet it does not matter that they are not true snapshots. The characters involved are still real, and more importantly the relationships depicted are so real that sometimes it is painful to look at. These

photographers give us insider access to their lives and the interactions and daily struggles that exist in every home. They manage to visually demonstrate the emotional content that isnt always expressed verbally, and as viewers we can all relate to that which is often left unsaid. This is why the snapshots of these photographers families, no matter the degree of fiction, are so powerful. The visual language of the snapshot is critical because we all have snapshots of our own, and thus know the habit of understanding themwe all are equipped to imagine ourselves into the snapshots of others, into the dramas and passions they conceal (Galassi, 11). The family snapshot was finally accepted into the fine art world when photographers pushed past the superficial exterior of traditional subject matter and probed the real relationships that lay underneath. These artists showed us that there is meaning in the struggles of individual lives when they are viewed from within.

Figure 1. Emmet Gowin, Nancy, Danville, VA 1969

Figure 2. Emmet Gowin, Edith and Elijah, Pennsylvania 1974.

Figure 3. Doug Dubois, After Dinner, December

Figure 4. Doug Dubois, Lise On Our Parents Bed

Figure 5. Jill Lynnworth, After The Bath, 1987

Figure 6. Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Mario

Figure 7. Tina Barney, The Landscape

Figure 8. Sally Mann, 1984-1991

Works Cited Beattie, Ann, and Andy Grundberg. Flesh & Blood: Photographers' Images of Their Own Families. Ed. Alice Rose George, Abigail Heyman, and Ethan Hoffman. N.p.: Picture Project, 1992. Print. DiCorcia, Philip-Lorca, and Peter Galassi. Philip-Lorca DiCorcia. Ed. Christine Liotta. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1995. Print. "Doug Dubois Interview." Interview by Alex Evans. Sunday and Wednesday, Dec. 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <>. Galssi, Peter. Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort. N.p.: Harry N. Abrams, 1987. Print. Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. Print.