Tag Archives: Vernacular photography

Photographs

3 Aug

 

Reading this article today reignited an enthusiasm, and reminded me of the reasons I began teaching the history of photography in the 1990s. As I told my classes at the beginning of each semester, I wanted to explore with them the seductive nature of photographs, to try and figure out why, at least in my case, it is nearly impossible NOT to look at a photograph. I can always ignore or skip over a painting or other artwork that doesn’t appeal to me aesthetically, but there’s something about the capturing of time and place in photographs that causes me to want to know more about any photographic image I see.

My mother came from a family that put their photos in albums, and so she made great big books of pictures she took throughout our childhood and beyond. I loved looking through the old ones, reading all the captions as a way to cement in my mind a visual memory bank of who was who and where was where in my family’s history. Then I started helping her compile the albums of our events, and finally, when I was on my own, making up my own books of my adventures as captured on Kodaks. I now have all the family photo albums, as well as boxes of images from various family members, dating from the 1920s through the 1950s, most of which have no identification, and there is now no way of finding out who these strays are or what they meant at one time to someone I know. But I still hang on to them, and occasionally look through them for signs of the times and to reflect on how landscapes have changed. In other words, I come by this obsession with photographs honestly, with a special attraction to found images, just as the writer of this article, Bill Schapiro, is drawn to them.

When I began to teach the history of photography at the Australian National University, my own curiosity about how photographic images work was my main motivation for offering the course. The teaching of photographic history, at least in Australia and I suspect in the U.S. as well, had been taken up primarily by photography departments in art schools, and for reasons that I suppose have to do with the enormous number of complex perceptual considerations that photos provide, most classes were steeped in theory, top-heavy with philosophical analyses and artspeak jargon. My history of photography class was, in the 1990s, the only one in Australia that considered photographs from an art historical rather than a theoretical perspective. I really loved teaching this class, because my students were as enthusiastic about the issues as I was, and they felt comfortable talking about a medium that they all knew about in some form. It has been years since I have revisited these topics, but this New York Times article sparked the interest again. So from my own collections, pictures that I love, and ones that are exemplary of the mystery of the medium, we can contemplate together some of these issues: how photographs’ meanings change over time, and finally, what to do with all those images in albums and boxes as references fade. Do they simply become non-entities, meaningless objects, or do they take on other, still significant, meanings? Here we go:

moxonphoto_forwordpress

**I found this little photographic card at a paper store in Los Angeles, in a box of old photos and post cards (I collect post cards, too, adding on to the collection begun by my great-aunt in the 1910s). I had initially thought that its address in Hay referred to Hay, Australia, but of course, it refers to Hay-on-Wye in England. The photographer, Thomas Moxon, was a well-known figure in the late 1890s and early 1900s, so this card was probably produced in the early 20th century. Why did it appeal to me? For the same reasons that it would appeal to Schapiro: here is a darling little girl, dressed in a pristine white dress, probably held up from behind by a “hidden mother” or father. Aside from the evidence of past styles of children’s dress–and I do love that revelation from found photos–this is an image of someone who is now gone, but who, as Schapiro writes, “lived, worked, made their share of bad decisions, loved a bunch and surely suffered some.” Just like Schapiro, this image grounds me, and gives me a longer view, of “humanity’s slow and sweeping waltz.” Everything about life is ephemeral, but the photograph remains.

robyn&janontrip_ca1972_000011

**This snapshot comes from one of my mother’s many albums. She seems to have kept and classified every single picture on the film roll, no matter how badly shot or how non-descript the focus. Playing devil’s advocate in my classes, I used to show another one in this “series” that conveyed even less information about what is depicted–it only showed the hood of the Karman Ghia in the background, the chain link fence,  the table with the orange pot, and my sister’s hands. I then asked the classes why such a photograph of hardly anything could possibly be interesting once the immediate references–my sister and her friend on a trip up the California coast in about 1973–had been lost in time. Students were all adamant: the image conveyed lots of information, they said, about the car, about a pot just like ones they had at home, and even about the landscape. I was amused by how closely they studied the photo, and how quick they were to defend its validity as an historical record, rather than a family heirloom.

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**Another one from my family albums, this one really stretches the idea of photograph as information. In context, it was taken by my mother out the window of the plane in which she was flying for the first time–to my college graduation in Denver in 1971. She was trying, with her little snapshot camera, to get a photo of the snow-capped Rockies. Aside from saying something about the quality of snapshot film in the 1970s, this vernacular photograph loses all meaning once its purpose as evidence of one person’s presence in a plane across the mountains is lost.

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**A snap of the living room in our “new” house in Torrance, California, in 1959. My mother must have sent this to her family back East, since she has written on the back: “East End of living room.  Behind drapes is a sliding glass door–in other words, the whole wall is glass, but our yard is still dirt, so I keep the drapes closed.” Then she writes below that, with an arrow pointing to the place on the front, “Stereo here.” I can read so much of family biography into this one: first of all, the pride of ownership. This house was a real step up the social ladder from where we lived before. My mother was especially proud that she now could have a piano, the piano on which I took lessons and which now lives at my son’s house. And I remember those curtains, or drapes as they were called, with all kinds of complicated pulls and ropes. They must have been an expensive item, since the curtains moved with us to the next house. And we had that green lounge chair for years and years, where my father usually sat. But what resonance can this boringly neat and tidy image of mid-20th century American suburbia have for anybody else? Just as I accumulated all these albums at my house, my history professor from graduate school contacted me for help with a book she was writing about suburban houses (Barbara Miller Lane, Houses for a New World). She looked through these albums, with their quantity of snaps of Californian suburbs circa 1950-70, and chose several as examples of how we lived, in a time that is now already historic. So there are those drapes, frozen in print for posterity, inside the covers of an academic book about American houses.

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**From the boxes of unidentified family pictures comes this wonderful group portrait. I think these may be Norwegian relatives, taken when my grandmother, who had come to America in 1918, went back to visit for the first time 50 years later. A Norwegian friend has verified that the house looks like one from Norway, and if I study the faces carefully, I can convince myself that I see family resemblances. But now they are all dead, and eventually this image will end up in one of those dusty bins for sale in antique shops, flea markets, and second-hand bookstores.

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**Finally, one of me. Granted, I’m only 5 days old, and not really recognizable yet, but the photo speaks volumes, doesn’t it? I would imagine that Schapiro, if he found this on any of his collecting expeditions would love it, for he says he is “drawn to quietly composed pictures that hold the sense of an unfinished story.” That it most certainly is.

For me, the picture also points to the great dilemma facing so many of us: what will happen to all these thousands of photographs once I’m gone, and the next generation only takes gillions of digital images? I would hope that my son will take them, and in preparation for coaxing him and his wife into maintaining this “hard copy” legacy, I have already made up albums of “real” photos of the digital images of their two boys’ first years. I am concerned about the fact that the next generation will have no actual visual record of their lives except in cyberspace. I want to make sure that they have the opportunity to peruse their families’ histories just as I have had.

Still, I am aware that, as this New York Times article states, in the end our photos are all that may endure of us. Schapiro’s last lines are something we all have to face: “These found photographs not only remind me of this delicate thing we run both toward and away from–time–but they also hold something else. The humbling, steadying truth that, one day, that’s all we’ll be: a photo.”

There is still so much more I would like to explore on this topic, but I’ll close for now–and include an image of us with a cat! Appleton, Wisconsin, 1985. The cat’s name was Hecate.

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