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Photographies
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SNAPSHOTS
Geoffrey Batchen
Published online: 18 Sep 2008.

To cite this article: Geoffrey Batchen (2008) SNAPSHOTS, Photographies, 1:2, 121-142, DOI:
10.1080/17540760802284398
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Geoffrey Batchen
SNAPSHOTS

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Art history and the ethnographic turn

This paper is about art historys worst nightmare boring pictures. This is the only
possible description of the vast majority of photographic images, which tend to be
predictable, conservative, and repetitive in both form and content. As a consequence, they
do not easily fit into an art historical narrative still anxiously, insecurely, focused on
originality, innovation, and individualism. The study of photography thus represents a
serious problem for the practice of art history, just as, say, the snapshot represents a serious
problem for the history of photography. How should one go about writing a history for an
infinity of generic snapshots? What historical rationale should one adopt when value
judgments no longer seem to be relevant elements of the historical process? Hal Foster has
worried aloud about the ethnographic turn he says is involved in the displacement of
art history by visual culture, a concern that seems to focus on the relativism he associates
with an anthropological model of historical practice. Through an examination of the
problem of writing a history for the snapshot photograph, the paper addresses the othering
of art history that the ethnographic turn apparently entails by proposing yet another
kind of historical model.
This essay is about art historys worst nightmare: boring pictures. Im speaking, of
course, about snapshots, that most ubiquitous and familiar of photographic genres. I
want to address the problem of writing a history for the snapshot, a problem
generated by the difficulty of deciding what to put in and what to leave out; that is, on
coming up with a rationale on which to base value judgments, a key element of
traditional art historical practice. On a number of levels, snapshots resist such a
practice. But then, so does photography in general. In that sense, it could be said that
snapshots are to the history of photography as photography is to the history of art;
each represents a significant threat to the stability of its host discipline. Some have
described this threat in terms of an ethnographic turn and worry about the advent
of a cultural relativism in which the value judgments necessary to art history will
disappear. Although focused on snapshots, my paper is, therefore, also about the
methodological questions that arise when art history is forced to confront the spectral
presence of its other.
A little girl stands in a doorway, dressed in a coat that almost reaches the ground.
Despite her small stature, she looks straight into my eyes from the dead center of the
picture plane, a directness of gaze made possible by the photographer (her mother or
father?) having kneeled on a lower step to take the picture. Behind her, reflected in
the rectangular panes of a glass door, is the tangled landscape of tree trunks and
branches that she can see behind me (figure 1).
Photographies Vol. 1, No. 2, September 2008, pp. 121142
ISSN 1754-0763 print/ISSN 1754-0771 online 2008 Taylor & Francis
http://www.informaworld.com DOI: 10.1080/17540760802284398

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A husband and wife (or so it seems) stand in a garden, he in front of her, but with
her hands poking through beneath his armpits to grasp his wrists. Her blue dress
provides a slash of color in an otherwise drab scene, with much of the foreground of
the picture cast in deep shadow. He cocks his head with a wry smile while she peers at
us intensely over his shoulder, offering a contrast of looks that belies the lightness of
this little moment of conjugal play-acting (figure 2).
A young woman in a wide-brimmed hat looks away from us across the water at
something blurred on the distant horizon line; it can only be the Statue of Liberty.
True to the illogic of photography, she towers over the famous monument (so much

FIGURE 1

Unknown, untitled (Little girl on porch), ca. 194344, Gelatin silver print, 4L63 in. Gift

of Frank Maresca, 2002. Collection of the Newark Museum. 2002.59.119.

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SNAPSHOTS

FIGURE 2 Unknown, untitled (Standing couple), ca. 194049, Gelatin silver print hand-colored with
Marshalls paints, 567 in. Gift of Frank Maresca, 2002. Collection of the Newark Museum. 2002.59.113.

for the realism of the camera image). But her own figure is equally threatened by two
gigantic, dark fingers that have strayed across the lens during exposure and are now
flattened against the left side of the picture. The end result is an impossible
composition made plausible only by its photographicness (figure 3).
They are, of course, all family snapshots, three more or less arbitrarily chosen
examples from an endless torrent of similar kinds of pictures. Its been said that
Americans alone take about 550 snapshots per second, a statistic that, however it has
been concocted, suggests that the taking of such photographs might best be regarded
as a neurosis rather than a pleasure. Why, then, do we take such pictures? And what
are we to make of them now? Most pressing speaking as a professional photohistorian is the question of how we are to write a history for such a practice. What
should a history about the snapshot look like, be like, sound like?
Despite the ubiquity of family snapshots as a genre, they barely appear in most
standard histories of photography. The reasons are obvious: most snapshots are
cloyingly sentimental in content and repetitively uncreative as pictures, having little

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FIGURE 3 Unknown, untitled (Woman and Statue of Liberty), ca. 192025, Gelatin silver print,
4J62 9/16 in. Gift of Frank Maresca, 2002. Collection of the Newark Museum. 2002.59.17.

value in the marketplace of either ideas or commodities. For all these reasons, they
dont easily fit into a historical narrative still anxiously, insecurely, focused on
originality, innovation, and individualism.
But perhaps we should turn this problem around and look at it from the other
side: the snapshot, precisely because this is the most numerous and popular of
photographic forms, represents an interpretive problem absolutely central to any
ambitious scholarship devoted to the history of photography. Oblivious to the artistic
prejudices that still guide much of that scholarship, family photographs challenge us to
find another way of talking about photography, a way that can somehow account for
the determined banality of these, and indeed most other, photographic pictures.

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But to find that other way we are first going to have to displace, or at least
complicate, existing models of writing about the history of photography. We might
start this process by acknowledging that, ever since photographys invention was
announced in 1839, scholars have struggled to find an appropriate way to write a
history for it. In the nineteenth century these efforts tended to be driven by priority
and nationalist claims or were organized around a chronological account of technical
improvements. The first histories of photographic images did not appear until the
early twentieth century, usually in the form of photographers biographies.
An art history of photography was written by Beaumont Newhall in the 1930s,
and this was soon supplemented by similar accounts based on private and museum
collections.1 These accounts established a coherently linear narrative occupied by a
canon of photographic artists and master works drawn almost exclusively from
Europe and the United States. Incidentally, although Newhalls pioneering work did
include a number of vernacular photographs among its reproductions, no snapshots
were among them.
A History soon became The History and this has meant that a modernist art
historical discourse, with its narrow emphasis on avant-garde practice and aesthetics
remained the dominant way of talking about photographys history throughout the
twentieth century, whether this talk took the form of books or exhibitions.2 One
result has been that photography a sprawling cultural phenomenon inhabiting
virtually every aspect of modern life: from birth to death, from sex to war, from
atoms to planets, from commerce to art is consistently left out of its own history
(for only a few, select photographs qualify for inclusion in an art history of the
medium).
But it also means that photographys history is often still made to obey the look
and basic organizing principles of art history. There are exceptions of course, but in
general the art history of photography celebrates singular achievements and their
moment of origin, so that even objects having multiple manifestations and meanings
are treated as unique and individual events. Among other effects, repeating these
principles in publications and exhibitions devoted to photographys history tends to
repress those attributes that make photography such a distinctive element of modern
culture for example, the reproducibility of the photograph and therefore the
ability of any particular image to come in a variety of looks, sizes, and formats; the
complication of authorship and origin that results; and the enmeshing of
photographic practice within the tawdry commerce of consumer capitalism and
mass production.
Moreover, most photographs are actually about conformity, not innovation or
subversion. So they dont readily fit the usual art historical narratives. If you examine
cartes-de-visite portraits or snapshots or wedding pictures, to name just a few of
photographys many neglected genres, youll discover that each example captures a
unique pose, even if that pose obediently repeats a million other, very similar poses.
They are all the same, but they are all also just slightly different from each other. If
were going to consider all of photography in its history, we will need to develop a
way to deal with this visual and political economy of same but different. Certainly
we must, as Michel Foucault says, eliminate certain ill-considered oppositions
the opposition between average forms of knowledge (representing its

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everyday mediocrity) and deviant forms (which manifest the singularity or solitude
of genius).3
Of course theres an assumption held by those who propagate an art history of
photography that by privileging singular achievements and avant-garde photographic
practice in the mediums history, one is providing a model (both artistic and social/
political) for similarly transgressive action in the present. Its a comforting illusion,
but Im afraid Im no longer convinced by this argument or this kind of historical
emphasis. A normative history that privileges avant-garde practice, even those
practices that at some point contested the establishment of their own time, is still a
normative history. It merely feeds an art world economy for whom such dead avantgardes are only so many commodities, intellectual and otherwise. What Im
suggesting here is that we need an avant-garde approach to history, not another
obedient history of the avant-garde.
To reiterate: the problem I have with our existing, standard histories of
photography is not just a matter of content (of whats included or excluded from that
history). My concern is with the mode of historical discourse itself, and with the
conceptual infrastructure on which this history is built.
Photography was once described by Roland Barthes as an anthropological
revolution in mans history, as a truly unprecedented type of consciousness.4
It is the advent of the Photograph, he postulated, which divides the history of the
world.5 Writing a history for something that itself divides history is obviously a
crucial, even if daunting, task. And yet photographys variety and self-effacing
ubiquity have also made it an elusive historical entity, defying traditional
interpretative or narrative structures. How, after all, do you go about presenting a
history of a consciousness? How do you evoke something as momentous as an
anthropological revolution?
How do you write a history for something that escapes easy definition, has no
discernable boundaries, and operates on the principle of reflection (how, for example,
do you separate a photograph from what its of or from the unfolding context of its
reception)? How do you invent a voice (or voices) for this history that can speak to
photographys emotional effects as well as its physical and formal characteristics and
economic and political ramifications? How can you speak of and from a local position
and yet encompass photographys global reach and its multiple expressions of cultural
difference? These questions collectively constitute the problem that now faces us; the
need for a systemic transformation of the way the history of photography is
represented such that this history can, for the first time, engage with photography in
all of its many aspects and manifestations.
This transformation has, in fact, already begun, as evidenced by the publications
of a new generation of inter-disciplinary scholars who take for granted that
photography is predominately a vernacular practice and has always been a global
experience. Im thinking of writers on photography as various as Marina Warner and
Jennifer Tucker, Elspeth Brown and Christopher Pinney, Carol Williams and Martha
Langford, Patricia Johnston and Robin Kelsey, Shawn Michelle Smith and Carol
Mavor, Nicholas Mirzoeff and Elizabeth Edwards, to name only a few of the more
prominent.6 Heterogeneous by inclination, these scholars have combined elements of
art history and cultural studies with philosophy, womens studies, anthropology,

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American studies, literature, and sociology, among other interpretive models. They
address themselves to commercial and ordinary photographs rather than just to art
objects, and tend to focus on issues like race, sexuality, power and everyday
experience they focus, in other words, on photographys relationship to life.
Many in this group came of intellectual age during the 1980s, when postmodern
skepticism about the nature of knowledge and truth was at its height. But they have
equally emerged from the ongoing dissension that in North America has come to be
called Visual Culture. As Abigail Solomon-Godeau has pointed out, this combination
of words seems to simultaneously refer to an object of study, a mode of analysis and a
new academic discipline.7 However its the very fact that Visual Culture appears to be a
phenomenon encompassing methodological, institutional, and archaeological ambitions
that makes it such a challenging proposition; the very fact that it escapes definition as
either one thing or another is the source of its potential political import.
However one chooses to understand it, this term Visual Culture at the least
implies the possibility of inventing different kinds of historical voices in order to ask
different kinds of historical questions. Many scholars have been drawn, for example,
to the type of critical analysis proposed by Irit Rogoff, an analysis that, she suggests,
should speak to, rather than about, a given object of study.8 This might be taken to
mean that ones mode of analysis be driven by the specific qualities of the object being
discussed (and that therefore Visual Culture will entail many different types of
discourse, not just one).
In my own case, it has, for example, encouraged a shift of analytical emphasis
from the producers of photographs to their owners, offering the possibility of a
history of the reception of photographs. Photography thereby becomes a dynamic
mode of apprehension rather than a series of static pictures. Similarly, it has
encouraged the study of photographic practices or genres rather than individual
photographers. This history necessarily features practices involving collective hands
and/or now-unknown makers (many of them women), thereby displacing the
biographical and phallocentric bias of most current photographic histories.9 Rogoffs
proposal also implies the deployment of a self-consciously subjective or even
autobiographical voice, a move that comes with its own incipient dangers (although
writers from James Agee and Roland Barthes to Rebecca Solnit and Helen Ennis have
all managed to produce powerful texts about photography by this means).10
But principal among Visual Cultures dangers, apparently, is its affinity with
anthropological discourse and therefore with an analytical relativism that erases
cultural and temporal specificities. Or so proposes Hal Foster, in a series of essays
published in the art journal October in the 1990s. Comparing art history to visual
culture in 1996, Foster argued that the shift from history to culture intimates a
shift, inadvertent or otherwise, to anthropology as a guardian discourse.11
Suggesting that visual culture is the discursive equivalent of the internet in the
way it reduces the material specificity of pictures to a disembodied and generic array
of images, he describes its practitioners as engaged in tabulations of images
deemed more or less equal in value. The implication is that the kind of aesthetic or
intellectual judgments that would and should distinguish a snapshot from, say, an art
photograph by Garry Winogrand will be set aside by those advocating Visual Culture.
For Foster, this is a basic anthropological move, for apparently in the ethnographic

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model one moves horizontally from site to site, across social space, a movement
that, he suggests, may promote something he calls a posthistorical reduction.12
Foster wrote this essay at about the same time as he was publishing another, The
Artist as Ethnographer, where he similarly worried about both the appropriation of
the other and the othering of the self in contemporary art and criticism.13 In
these cases, he suggested, the ethnographic approach can become a gambit, an
insider game that renders the institution not more open and public but more hermetic
and narcissistic, a place for initiates only where a contemptuous criticality is
rehearsed.14 Although he includes critics and historians among those engaged in this
ethnographic turn, all the examples he discusses here are artists, such as the
installation artist Fred Wilson. This emphasis itself betrays the ethnographic basis of
Fosters own art history, which specializes in speaking about and for artists as a
strange, lost tribe of creative mavericks operating on the margins of everyday culture.
However, as Matthew Rampley has pointed out, the ethnographic turn identified
by Foster as a recent, troubling development has in fact been an aspect of art history
since its beginnings, with the defining of cultural alterity a driving logic behind the
work on aesthetics of Kant, Hegel, Semper, Riegl, and most of the other founding
figures of the discipline.15
Nevertheless its certainly true that the recent emergence into visibility of a vast
new field of photographic practices from Africa, Asia, and Latin America has brought
with it a renewed interest in the anthropological perspective on cultural activity.
Anthropology has traditionally looked at such activity as something that has utilitarian
value. Images are created for some purpose. Images do things. They are social objects,
not simply aesthetic ones. They are meaningful only when seen in relationship to a wider
social network of beliefs and practices, economies and exchanges. As a consequence, I
would argue that this view has so far enhanced, rather than reduced, an emphasis on the
specificity of social context, and a sensitivity to the complications, ethical and otherwise,
of writing in the face of difference. In short, the new generation of photographic
scholars takes for granted that there are many photographies, not just one.
Although Foster worries about the prevalence of the disembodied image
within Visual Culture, scholars trained as anthropologists who consistently write
about photography, such as Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Pinney, have in fact
insisted on a close attention to the materiality of their objects of study. Edwards, for
example, has written about the degree to which photographs are sometimes held,
caressed, stroked, sung to within Australian Aboriginal communities, bringing sound
and touch as well as sight into her analysis of their photographic experience.16
Pinney adopts the perspective of the participant observer in his work about
photography in central India, insisting on what he calls the role of photography in
social relations; a photographs role as memorial; and the materiality of images.
Mimicking a first-person documentary voiceover, he argues in a more recent essay
that in current anthropological scholarship subjectivity equals the new objectivity,
thus opening this sort of scholarship to the self-reflexive rhetorical devices of the
historical novel.17
Although he pays lip service to difference in his writing, Fosters most
recent book, Art since 1900, was notable for its refusal to countenance, for example,
different regional responses to modernity. There was no space in this history of

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twentieth-century art for an analysis of the specificity of Australian, Thai,


Canadian, Nigerian, or Peruvian modernism, to name only a few neglected
national cultures, thereby eliminating the enabling confusion of this sort of cultural
diversity from the books master narrative.18 In this case, Foster was content to
maintain precisely the cozy Euro-American hegemony that Visual Culture aims to
contest.
But perhaps his fear of Visual Culture relates to difference at an even more
profound level, for relativism can also be a way to cast radical doubt on what Foster
takes for granted in his own art criticism: what he calls the intransigence of a
sexuality, an unconscious, or any substance that might exceed the historically
specific.19 It is hard to deny that the ethnographic turn in Visual Culture
encourages a skeptical attitude to the notion that there is a sexuality or an
unconscious that somehow transcends the specificity of its historical circumstances.
If there are many photographies, then, it follows, there can also potentially be many
sexualities and even, perhaps, more than one unconscious.
So far, Fosters concerns seem to be misplaced, self-interested, or simply
mischievous, but they do at least raise this whole question of the politics of any
discourse about visual images. It forces us to consider exactly what is at stake in these
arcane debates about definitions and specificity, voice and subject matter. The editors
of October rightly feel that art history itself is at risk here and for some reason want to
defend it, thus reinforcing their own continuing alliance with ruling-class values and
interests.20
But its precisely because I feel that history does indeed matter, and that an art
history of photography is now so inadequate to the task at hand, that I gravitate to the
still-open range of possibilities signified by Visual Culture. The words may be
inadequate, but the desire for difference they represent is compelling. For me, then,
Visual Culture promises, not an alternative to our current ways of understanding the
history of photography, but an eruption within that history which threatens to totally
transform its existing parameters. In that sense, I believe that, as a way of talking
about photography, and especially about vernacular, everyday genres of photography
like snapshots, the emerging field of Visual Culture remains ripe with all sorts of
interesting possibilities.
This returns me to the problem with which I began my discussion, the
problem of devising a way of incorporating the snapshot genre into a history of
photography. My first three examples come from a collection of about 500
snapshots recently donated to New Jerseys Newark Museum by Frank Maresca, a
dealer in contemporary folk art with a gallery in the Chelsea district of New
York.21 The man obviously has an educated, quirky eye, for many of the pictures
in his collection feature unexpected or multiple points of view (like the reflections
in the door or the accidental juxtaposition of fingers, woman, and monument) as
well as poignantly unknowable narratives, racy sexual situations, or other elements
of unusual pictorial interest. For all these reasons, theyre not very representative
of family snapshots.
Or maybe they are? What would a representative sample of snapshots look like,
anyway, and how would we go about choosing it? Thats exactly the historical
dilemma were trying to solve here.

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And were certainly not the first to try. After decades of neglect, there have been
a surprising number of substantial publications and exhibitions dedicated to the
snapshot in recent years. And as youve already heard, we now even have art dealers
donating their collections of snapshots to art museums: art dealers collecting
snapshots? museums accepting donations of snapshots? books about snapshots? Whats
going on here? Twenty years ago you couldnt give snapshots away. So why the
sudden interest?
Could this burst of activity be inspired by the possibility that this is a form of
photography that is already safely a thing of the past? In effect, these various
publications, several of them exhibition catalogues from major art museums, celebrate
the snapshot even as they declare it dead (never has the etymological connection
between museum and mausoleum seemed so direct).22 Today, looking back from our
digital age, it has to be conceded that snapshots are themselves historical objects,
remnants of an earlier, industrial phase in modernitys development. They speak of a
time, not so long ago, when cameras still carried film and Kodak still dominated the
photography market. They speak of my youth, maybe even of the youth of our
modern age. As I have suggested previously, the advent of digital technologies means
that this kind of photography has now taken on an extra memorial role, not of the
subjects it depicts, but of its own operation as a system of representation.23 This
suffuses snapshots with the aesthetic appeal of a seductive melancholy, whatever their
actual age or the particularities of their subject matter. Certainly its hard now to see
these rectangles of gelatin silver or vivid color, with their white edges and glossy
sheen, except through a distorting haze of modernist nostalgia.
That said, snapshots are often full of useful information about the past; one can
well imagine social histories illustrated by snapshots, or even a social history of the
snapshot itself, tracing the founding of the Eastman Kodak company in 1888, and
the development of its cameras and marketing techniques. Urging women to become
the familys historian, Kodak aggressively associated the snapshot with memory and
loss, and with specifically middle-class values and sentiments, and insisted that
photography be regarded as an essential part of everyday life.24 This is certainly an
important story to tell. But surely its not the only one. Its not the one, for example,
that most of these recent publications have chosen to recount.
Two of the most prominent of these publications are Snapshots: The Photography of
Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present, issued by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
in 1998, and Other Pictures, published in 2000 in conjunction with an exhibition of
snapshots from the collection of Thomas Walther at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
in New York.25 In both cases, their chosen pictures are presented with a minimum of
textual accompaniment, one image to a page, in no particular chronological order,
like so many precious art objects. And why not? Isolated like this, removed from any
sense of an original context, these pictures do become precious, even extraordinary.
You flip from page to page, picture to picture, amazed at the luscious tones and
formal invention of these otherwise ordinary photographs.
One looks as though it was taken by Man Ray, another by Rodchenko. They
prove, so Walther claims in his written contribution to Other Pictures, that the
camera can be an extension of genius in the hands of any one of us.26 Or,
equally, they prove that an eye educated by art history can, if it wants to, find traces

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of avant-garde sensibility wherever it looks. Which is it? Are these publications a


tribute to the snapshot, or to the sharp eye of their collector/curator? Are they
exercises in photo-history, or just in art appreciation and pseudo-morphism? What do
these publications actually tell us about the snapshot as a cultural or social
phenomenon or even as a personal experience? Answer: very little.
What they do tell us quite a lot about is the continuing influence of a certain kind
of art history on the study of photography. More particularly, they imply that the
making of value judgments in Fosters view an activity that separates art history
from Visual Culture is an appropriate way to go about making sense of snapshots. In
part, this assumption indicates the degree to which, thanks in part to the dominance of
the October group over the past twenty years, the tropes of art criticism have come to
be identified with the practice of art history.27 Faced with a vast field of possible
choices, both Walther and Nickel have decided that the best thing to do is pick out a
relatively few interesting pictures from the multitude available, as if to make the case
for a parallel avant-garde population striving for pictorial innovation amongst us
otherwise ordinary folk snapshots as Outsider Art.
This approach, in which a handful of exceptional examples is asked to represent a
genre otherwise infinite in number, is repeated in Photo Trouvee, an anthology of found
pictures published in France in 2006.28 Here we are presented with snapshot viewing
as a kind of surrealist exercise, as if the subjective nature of the selection is itself a
reflection on the impossibility of the curatorial task. In the face of innumerable
choices, chance is apparently the only historical method that can properly represent
this type of photograph. Once again, many of these pictures come to us replete with
effects probably unintended by their photographer: comedic accidents, double
exposures, odd reflections, unexplained poses and gestures, and blurred situations.
Theyve all been made by now unknown photographers in circumstances that can only
be guessed at. Having been elevated to the status of folk art, they have also been
transformed here into something other than themselves: into memories without
memory, stories without storytellers; in short, into enigmas.
That doesnt make them any less interesting as pictures. Or perhaps its only their
isolation, cut off from the visual cacophony of all the worlds other snapshots, that has
made these pictures seem interesting. Consider another of these efforts to present the
snapshot to us, in this case an exhibition catalogue published in 2007 by the National
Gallery in Washington.29 In many ways, its the best publication on the snapshot that
has been produced to date, being well organized, written, and designed. It provides a
four-essay social history of the snapshot, beautifully illustrated with both
advertisements and period snapshots. Its rare to find an approach that tries to put
snapshots into a specific context, designating the differences between those produced
in 1920 and 1950. This book does so. And the pictures are fascinating and often
extraordinary.
And theres where the usual problem arises. This exhibition and book are based
on one private collection of 8000 snapshots (138 of which have been given to the
National Gallery in the usual quid pro quo arrangement). These snapshots have been
culled from, as youll remember, the 550 snapshots that are taken every second (the
book ventures a total number for 1977: 8.9 billion in the US alone). They were in fact
collected by someone trained as an art historian and he has looked, naturally enough,

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for creative, unusual, and rare examples of the snapshot art. However, as Ive
already suggested, the vast majority of snapshots are not rare or particularly creative;
theyre mostly banal, repetitive in pictorial form, and conformist in social aspiration.
Those snapshots (and therefore 99% of the genre) are not represented here.
In a sense, this book exemplifies the problem of presenting a history of
photography within the confines of an art historical narrative or an art museum. A
representative history of the visual culture of photography has to acknowledge and
account for boredom and ubiquity, the mediums most abiding visual qualities. But
the National Gallery of Art is not going to mount an exhibition devoted to boring
pictures and is therefore constitutionally unable to present a representative history of
the snapshot.
So in this book you have the odd juxtaposition of a textual social history (except
for the last chapter, which cant stop itself from telling us all about the snapshots
influence on high art) and illustrations that display untypical, exceptional examples, in
most cases removed from any sense of an original context and displaced from the
personal intimacy that once animated them as keepsakes. At least the book is called
The Art of the American Snapshot, an honest enough title. Now all we need is an actual
history of the American snapshot, a history obsessed with life rather than art. But what
institution is going to take that task on, or has the resources of the National Gallery to
do as nice a job as this?
The Getty Museum in Los Angeles perhaps? Theyve in fact already done it,
having contributed their own publication on the snapshot in 2004. Titled Close to
Home: An American Album, this catalogue shows us yet more snapshots plucked from
obscurity, reproduced in both color and black and white, printed at all sorts of
different scales, with no regard for the original object or its context.30 Compared
with the other publications, I find many of the Getty images to be not very compelling
to look at, except as social documents of bygone eras (as records of clothing, cars,
furniture, leisure activities, home life). Perhaps my relative disinterest in them as
pictures is due to a contempt born of familiarity. For these particular snapshots do
look very much like the ones in my own shoebox; that is, they look like pictures of
nothing much. But they come to me without any of the twinges of recognition and
memory that give my own family pictures their continued vitality. Theyre more or
less representative of the form of the snapshot, but they lack those other qualities that
make the snapshot matter as a social artifact. All I see here are some random visual
residues of someone elses life, as if Im being made privy to only one side of a
conversation now fallen silent.
This imposed silence points to the real difficulty of writing about the snapshot.
As soon as you pick one out from the herd for special attention, you kill the very
quality that makes it what it is. The Getty publication, speaking for all of them,
embraces, even celebrates, this act of displacement: disengaged from their function
as personal mementos, snapshots fascinate because they become open to new and
varied interpretations.31 Personal intimacy is replaced by voyeuristic speculation,
thus making even the most formulaic image a thing of fascination. This invitation to
speculate, it is argued, restores the creative exchange between viewer and
photograph that has been otherwise lost in the transfer from family archive to art
book.

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Certainly the separation of any snapshot from its original contextual narrative
makes you concentrate on incidental details and on the contingent pictorial effects of
framing and cropping (you are thereby forced to attend to the internal, formal
elements of photographic picture-making, forgetting that this is only one aspect of
how the meaning of a photograph is determined).32 All this allows these books
to successfully turn a private act into a public art. But this process also happens to be a
convenient way for each of these publications to avoid having to address itself to the
specific character of the snapshot as a genre of photography.
I would suggest that this character consists of at least two interlocking parts. On
the one hand, we have a type of photographic image that, contrary to the impression
left by most of these publications, tends to be predictable in content and conservative
in style. On the other, these same, unexciting images are capable of inducing a
photographic experience that can be intensely individual, often emotional, sometimes
even painful. Heres another of those conundrums: snapshots are dull pictures that we
cant live without (remarkably, snapshots are a kind of picture one could both laugh
and cry over).
Any study of the snapshot worthy of the name must surely address itself to the
dynamics of this contradiction (boring picture for me, moving picture for you) by way
of a theory of photographic reception. This means looking more closely at the
relationship of the snapshot to a network of expectations and obligations extending far
outside the picture itself. In short, it will mean having to consider the snapshot
photograph as both a complex social device and a personal talisman, rather than
simply as a static art object.
Lets return to our original three examples from the Maresca Collection. They
could be said to exhibit many of the snapshots most common attributes. Theyve
been taken of friends and family members by amateur photographers with cheap handheld cameras for the express purpose of producing a personal memento. As pictures,
they combine humor and unrehearsed intimacy with a formality borrowed from a
professional studio tradition. The subject (almost always a person) is usually placed
firmly in the center of the picture plane, looking directly at the camera, well aware
that they are posing for posteritys sake.
We dont know these people, and probably never will. But we can still imagine
the scenario that has led to these moments, for this is an experience we have all
shared. The little girl has no doubt been coached by her parent/photographer (who
has in turn been coached by Kodak advertisements and perhaps even by his/her own
parents) to mimic a set of gestures and poses thought proper to such pictures.
Through that mimicry they both express a desire (whether consciously or not) to
conform to the looks and expectations of middle-class life. As a collective activity of
picture-making, snapshots show the struggles of particular individuals to conform to
the social expectations, and visual tropes, of their sex and class; as Ive already
suggested, everyone simultaneously wants to look like themselves and like everyone
else to be the same but (ever so slightly) different. Before all else, snapshots are
odes to conformist individualism.
This visual conformity makes these sorts of photographs comfortingly familiar.
They stitch both photographer and subject into a larger community of shared values
and aspirations. Snapshots thereby work to reconcile personal and mass identity. But

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134

FIGURE 4 Unknown, untitled (Myself Lyle Egan best friend), ca. 1930s, Gelatin silver print,
43=8|23=4 in. Collection of the author.

this social imperative still doesnt entirely explain why we find our own snapshots to
be so moving, given their otherwise low-brow aesthetic qualities.
Maybe we have to ask whether the relative lack of imagination shown in these
sorts of photographs in fact shifts the burden of imaginative thought from the artist
and subject, where historians usually seek it, to the viewer, who is invited by such
pictures to see much more than meets the eye.33 Certainly, when I examine a
snapshot of a loved one, I see how they once looked, but I also project how I feel
about that person onto the picture. The snapshot conjures how they were then and how
I am now, in the same all-encompassing look.
If we were to cast our eyes over all the 500 snapshots from the Maresca
Collection, we might notice that some of them come to us somewhat damaged; over

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SNAPSHOTS

the years theyve been stained, weathered, and scarred. One of them even has a crease
all the way across it (and yet someone still treasured this photograph enough to keep
it). Its a reminder that snapshots could potentially be reproduced in large numbers
but in reality they are often unique images. Such deformities are also a reminder that
these pictures were once regularly touched by their original owners. They were
touched, fingered, fondled, turned over, perhaps written on or read (figure 4), and
then, in many cases, placed in albums designed expressly for the purpose. These
albums were a vehicle for storytelling, often conveying a bio-epic starring the maker
of the album (who we know, from ink captions, only as me).34 Roughly
chronological, this narrative usually located its principal actor within a web of familial
and social events and settings, allowing the depiction of an idealized life in pictorial
form (snapshots rarely capture moments of tension or unhappiness).
Each double page might present a different version of the same basic narcissistic
story (me at the beach with my friends, me at my birthday party, me on holiday in
Paris, my friends looking at me as I take their photograph). In such narratives, the
relationship of one photograph to the next is a crucial element, allowing for a relay
effect that binds a given ensemble together in coherent diegesis (many of these
pictures that we now see in isolation in art books might have looked a lot less strange
when seen in their original company).35 The current anonymity of this interlocutor is
a further reminder that the audience for this pictorial narrative was intended to be a
close circle of family and friends, probably the same group featured in the
photographs. In other words, the people looking at these snapshots knew their
subjects by name (and maybe they even took some or all of the snapshots themselves).
Snapshots are touchable objects but they are also often prompts for speech. The
subjects of these snapshots were once named aloud, talked over, joked about, libeled
and ridiculed, reinterpreted and contested in oral exchange.36 Snapshots were rarely
contemplated in respectful silence and nor should they be now. But what is a snapshot
when it has been rendered mute? What do they have to say to us now, when all this
animating chatter has died down and we are left with only its husk, with just the
prompt itself? What else do found snapshots have to tell us, beyond the sad fact of
their own death as meaningful personal artifacts?
Well, they might also be regarded as a collective declaration of faith in the midst
of an increasingly skeptical, secular world. Like every photograph, the snapshot is an
indexical trace of the presence of its subject, a trace that both confirms the reality of
existence and remembers it, potentially surviving as a fragile talisman of that existence
even after its subject has passed on. It is the need to provide witness to this existence
to declare I was here! in visual terms that surely drives us to keep on
photographing, rather than the intrinsic qualities of the picture that results.
Pierre Bourdieus 1965 sociological study of what he called a middle-brow art
described the making of family snapshot albums as a ritual of integration that enacts
a normalizing function with all the clarity of a faithfully visited gravestone.37
Among other things, he points out that family snapshots can be taken with any sort of
camera, and that, equally, a snapshot camera can take a variety of kinds of picture;
what makes a snapshot a snapshot is its function, not its pictorial qualities, and this
function is determined by the network of social relationships of which it is a part. He
underlines the ethnographic perspective he brings to his analysis by explicitly

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comparing family snapshots to churinga, those objects of decorated wood or stone


that represent the physical body of a particular ancestor, which, amongst the Aranda,
each generation solemnly presents to the living person held to be the reincarnation of
that ancestor, and which are periodically brought out for inspection and reverence.38
Bourdieu underlines the primal quality of our relationship to snapshots by
referring us to what, for him, must have seemed the most primitive of fetish objects,
those used by Australias Aborigines. The comparison might seem inappropriate
today, but who could deny the power of the relationship hes trying to describe?
Often said to be the first thing we would rescue from a burning building, the snapshot
is a type of photograph that is only rarely looked at and then usually in the most
private and domestic of circumstances, almost always framed by inventive
reminiscence and mixed emotions. We have to have them (to know we have them),
but we dont necessarily have to see them. The irony is that we take photographs in
order to deny the possibility of death, to stop time in its tracks and us with it. But that
very same photograph, by placing us indisputably in the past, is itself a kind of minideath sentence, a prediction of our ultimate demise at some future time. It certifies
times past and times inevitable passing. Every snapshot, no matter what its subject
matter, embodies this paradoxical message, speaking simultaneously of life and death.
This is a theme addressed at length in Roland Barthess last book, Camera Lucida,
in many ways the exemplary text for those interested in the kind of writing that is
now called Visual Culture. This influential essay part autobiographical novel, part
philosophical rumination is also an account of photography in which the snapshot
experience is, for once, given a central role. But its how Barthes chooses to talk about
this experience that is worth noting.
I have argued elsewhere that Camera Lucida, with its carefully calibrated choice of
illustrations, its peculiar temporal convolutions, its supplementary logic, binary
terms, and inverted layout (a layout in fact borrowed from Walter Benjamins 1931
Little History of Photography), offers an historical view of photography that is
deliberately structured like a photograph.39 In short, the book seeks to tell us certain
things about photography by itself becoming photographic, by giving us a specifically
photographic experience.
Like Benjamin before him, Barthes burrows into the very flesh of photography by
allowing his text to take on many of its most salient attributes, such as the play
between negative and positive that is at the heart of most photographic practices. Put
into motion, these attributes then become the structuring principles of his writing. By
this means his little book is able to directly engage photographys dissemination and
reception as well as its production, encompassing all of its many aspects, whether
visible (images and practices) or invisible (effects and experiences). Abandoning
chronology as an organizing principle, he looks primarily at ordinary photographs, rather
than masterworks, opening up the entire field of photography for examination and
eschewing any reliance on art historical prejudices. Aiming only to be representative,
rather than comprehensive, Barthes even proffers the possibility of a history based on just
one (unseen) photograph. In short, the analytical approach demonstrated by Camera Lucida
produces a history that is actually about photography, not just of photographs.
Barthes talks, for example, in very personal, emotive tones about the memories
of his deceased mother conjured by his encounter with a single, worn photograph of

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her. Although he describes this family photograph in detail, its corners blunted from
having been pasted into an album, the sepia print faded, he nevertheless refuses
to reproduce it for us.40 Its a clever move, because the absent presence of the socalled Winter Garden photograph of his mother is a void into which every reader then
projects their own snapshot of a loved one.
Barthes thus does something that none of these other histories of the snapshot
has dared to do he describes the essential snapshot, but does not make it visible,
demanding that we do that work for him in our minds eye. As a consequence,
infinity and zero every snapshot ever taken and this evoked, but forever absented
one are made to turn in on each other without pause. In this manner, Barthes
provides a textual space, an imaginary vortex, into which the entire history of the
snapshot can be funneled without a single picture from that history having to be
displaced into the public realm and thereby changed into something other than
itself.
Even 28 years after his death, Barthess ghost continues to haunt our
understanding of photography, even as the unruly, peculiar qualities of the
photographic experience similarly torment the practice of art history. My brief
ethnography of the snapshot has shown that traditional, conservative art history, of,
say, the sort practiced by Hal Foster, is patently inadequate to the complexities of this
genre of photography, or even to photography in general. Using Camera Lucida as a
possible model for another mode of historical accounting, I have proposed we adopt a
similar sort of analytical oscillation to the one found there, a back and forth between
whatever orphaned examples of snapshot culture we encounter in the world and our
own prized photographic reliquaries, between cliche and sublimity, sameness and
difference, truth and fiction, public and private, infinity and zero, without letting
either term ever rest on its laurels. For it is surely only here, here within the unstable
spacing of this kind of oscillation, that a truly photographic history for the snapshot
can plausibly be staged.

Notes
Versions of this essay are also being published in Japanese in Photographers Gallery Press
(2008) and in French in Etudes Photographiques (2008). Some paragraphs were first
published in Dividing History, Source 52 (September 2007): 2225.
1
The first edition of Newhalls history was issued as an exhibition catalogue by the
Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937, under the title Photography 1839
1937. A second edition, almost identical to the first, was then published as
Photography: A Short Critical History. It is worth noting that the Museum of Modern
Art presented an exhibition on the snapshot in 1944, publishing a catalogue titled
The American Snapshot: An Exhibition of the Folk Art of the Camera, with an essay on
The American Snapshot by Willard D. Morgan. Thanks go to Lynn Berger for
bringing my attention to this publication.
2
The third edition of Newhalls history was published as The History of Photography
from 1839 to the Present Day. For fuller accounts of photo-historys own history, see
Gasser; McCauley; Marien; Bertrand.
3
Foucault 62.

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10
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12
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17
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Barthes Rhetoric of the Image 44.


Barthes Camera Lucida 88.
See, for example, Warner; Tucker; Brown; Pinney; Williams; Langford;
Johnston; Kelsey; Smith; Mavor; Mirzoeff; Edwards. See also Pinney; Peterson.
Solomon-Godeau Rubrics Cubed.
Rogoff. See also Moxey.
See, for example, Batchen Forget Me Not.
Barthes Camera Lucida; Agee and Evans; Solnit; Ennis.
Foster Archives without Museums 104.
Ibid. 105.
Foster The Artist as Ethnographer 178, 180.
Ibid. 196.
Rampley.
Edwards.
Pinney.
Batchen Art since 1900: review.
Foster Archives without Museums103. It is on this basis, perhaps, that Foster is
able to offer a psychoanalytic reading of the response of seventeenth-century Dutch
viewers to still life paintings. See Foster The Art of Fetishism.
See Krauss and Foster.
The paragraphs that follow are based on my catalogue essay, From Infinity to
Zero, written for an exhibition curated by Marvin Heiferman, Now Is Then:
Snapshots from the Maresca Collection. Thanks are due to Mette Sandby for her
helpful comments on a draft of this essay.
The sudden burst of interest shown by art museums in snapshots is matched, and is
perhaps even initiated by, a parallel interest on the part of contemporary artists.
Artists as various as Tacita Dean, Joachim Schmid, and Akiko Ikeda have made
work out of found snapshots, in each case presenting a different kind of creative
archaeology of the genre. See, for example, Tacita Deans Floh (2000) and
Godfrey; MacDonald and Weber; Akiko Ikeda, Their Site/Your Sight (20008)
see her website: <http://www15.plala.or.jp/rouko73>. An earlier artistic
interest in the snapshot was confined to the borrowing of its aesthetic conventions
by such photographers as Emmet Gowin, Garry Winogrand, Nancy Rexroth, Tod
Papageorge, and Lee Friedlander. See Green.
Batchen Post-photography 111.
See Stephen; West.
Nickel; Walther. See also Smith.
Walther Acknowledgments in Other Pictures.
See her comments on the identification of art history with art criticism in
Golan. Golan refers in particular to Hal Fosters amazing knack, via a capacious
reservoir of highly hypostatized psychoanalytic terms, for packaging everything
into splendid pairs. This is again demonstrated in Fosters effort to present art
history and visual culture as a binary opposition.
Frizot and de Veigy. A recent review of this book claims to notice a more poetic
and overtly personal attitude to photographys elemental properties than one
finds in American publications, in effect claiming that Frizot and de Viegy exhibit a
French sensibility in the selection of their snapshots. See Moore Lost and
Found 94. Frizot himself has complained of the displacement of authorship from

SNAPSHOTS

29
30
31
32

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the snapshot photographer to the authority of the museum curator. Presumably his
refusal to integrate his selection of snapshots into a coherent order is an effort to
counter this tendency. See Frizot.
Greenough and Waggoner.
Waldie.
Naef and Martineau.
In this context, note the accidentally self-conscious pictorial qualities of the one
twentieth-century snapshot reproduced in Szarkowski 159. It is an example, in
Szarkowskis view, of the photographic medium speaking of and for itself. For
critical comments on the historical approach taken by Szarkowski, see SolomonGodeau, Mandarin Modernism, 14049, 183. It is also worth noting the
acclaim given to the work of Jacques Henri Lartigue within art museums, allowing
them to single out a master artist among all other snapshot makers. See Moore
Jacques Henri Lartigue.
For more along these lines, see Batchen Dreams of Ordinary Life 6374, 266
68.
See Whalen.
Barthes Rhetoric of the Image 3741.
See Langford.
Bourdieu et al. 3031.
Ibid. 31.
Batchen Camera Lucida; Benjamin.
Barthes Camera Lucida 67.

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Geoffrey Batchen is a professor of art history at the Graduate Center of the City
University of New York, where he specializes in the history of photography. He is
currently working on an exhibition about the careers of Richard Beard and Antoine
Claudet, due to open at the Yale Center for British Art in October 2011. His books
include Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (MIT Press, 1997); Each Wild
Idea: Writing, Photography, History (MIT Press, 2001); Forget Me Not: Photography and
Remembrance (Van Gogh Museum/Princeton Architectural Press, 2004); and William
Henry Fox Talbot (Phaidon, 2008).