Re-inventing the snapshot



I first published this post in my photography blog, Click! It was a while ago.

Consider this observation about the lowly snapshot: “If all human existence is essentially social, then snapshot photography has become the chief visual instrument of social memory.” This quote is from Weston Naef. He was curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles until he retired a couple of years ago. He wrote about snapshots for the wonderful little book Close to Home. I highly recommend it to anyone who is open to a new perspective on the humble snap.

Facebook, Flickr, and other social media sites that specialize in photographs and video show that the role of snapshots is increasing in reach and magnitude. This development brings to all of us the possibility of seeing snapshot photography in a whole new light. This post is for any of my readers who find that possibility intriguing.

Circa 1950, probably taken with a Kodak box camera. Me and the neighbor girl.

The two snapshots that accompany this post have a lot in common:

  • They were taken with inexpensive cameras typical of their historical periods. I took the pretzel shot with a Canon A630 point-and-shoot. You don’t even have to buy a camera if you own a smart phone.
  • I did not ask Taylor to pose for the pretzel shot. I just happened to be in the right place when she put it in her mouth. I don’t remember if was asked to give the girl a smooch. I have always found kissing so appealing that it did not require stage direction.
  • The composition in both instances is a no-frills, subject-in-the center design.

The differences are obvious:

  • It was the custom back then (and many people still follow it today) to include gobs of background in the composition. Also, cheap cameras in those days generally could not focus up close.
  • In 1950 everyone shot black and white film.
  • The lenses were often plastic, and if they were glass they were not very good glass.
  • The 50s negative would not produce a satisfactory enlargement. The print I scanned is three inches on a side. The pretzel photo looks good in a 16-by-20 inch print.

The purpose of this post is to share Mr. Naef’s message about the creative opportunity any photographer has to participate as a historian of our shared social memory. All you need is a smart phone, or a simple point-and-shoot camera. The iPhone, for example, captures a 5-megapixel image. You can print a completely satisfactory 11-by 14 inch print from a file that size.

How do you get a photo like the pretzel shot? Like most snapshots, I just saw the scene and clicked a button. I will admit that there is a little more going on under the hood.

  • Notice the quality of light. I love being under the edge of an overhang. In this instance we were in a farmers’ market space in a room with lots of huge barn doors that were wide open. The light just inside the openings of such buildings is often ideal for photographs. When a subject walks into that light, be ready to shoot.
  • I recommend keeping instructions to a minimum. Record life as it happens.
  • Get close to your subject. Cameras today are much more capable than my old Kodak Brownie. We don’t need as much foliage in the photo as we used to.

I am excited about snapshots, and for a long time I thought I had “outgrown” them. You might discover that recording life takes on a richer meaning than it had before if you give snapshots another chance.

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