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American Snapshots: An Anonymous Art

This is the final weekend of the Nelson-Atkins Museum exhibition: American Snapshot: An Anonymous Art from the Peter J. Cohen Gift.

From the museum’s website:

Amateur snapshots are the “folk art” of photography. Snapshots represent a world we instinctively know, while reminding us of the special—and often peculiar—nature of camera vision. 

These simple images embody a spirit of affection, curiosity and play. They reflect the familiar rhythms of everyday life—the events and motifs lovingly recorded generation after generation. They also represent a rich tradition of pictorial invention—a result, variously, of intention, mistake and chance. Tilted horizons, awkward intrusions and oddly cropped or off-center subjects are common in snapshots, as are the effects of blur, faulty focus and double exposure. 

Now, at the end of photography’s analog era, artists and collectors are studying these works with new respect as a key aspect of modern visual culture.

I visited the exhibit two weeks ago, and wish I had time to visit again.

It is a small collection which can easily be viewed in an hour or less. But oh… what a wonderful experience!

Not only is this a nostalgic trip to the past (we all have photographs of the flocked Christmas tree with foil wrapped gifts underneath), but it is an encouragement to all family historians to keep the faith. What we do is worthwhile – perhaps not museum worthy, but nevertheless serves a valuable role in society.

The exhibit taught me three valuable lessons:
  1. The snapshot is not a substandard art form. It is not something to be ashamed of. While  Photography is equated to fine art, the snapshot is more akin to folk art. And quite frankly, I’m more of a folk art kind of gal. I prefer pottery to fine china. I love quilts and the idea that each scrap of fabric is an integral part of a story. I need to stop downplaying my photography talent and instead appreciate the pictures for the stories they capture.
  2. Documentation is necessary. I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to know the story behind the pictures. For example… what kind of car is he driving? What year/model? Where is driving? (I’d love to know what that stretch of road looks like today). Why was the picture taken? Was he on vacation – or perhaps a traveling salesman? So many questions and lost details that would add value to the photo and preserve a piece of family and American history.
  3. Mistakes are not failures. Some of my favorites in the exhibit were the double-exposure photos. The photographer apparently forgot to advance the film, causing two shots to appear on the same negative. While not a “perfect” picture, there is this idea of two stories coming together in one serendipitous moment. I wonder what beauty lies in my imperfect photos if I allow myself the freedom to see them from a different perspective? 
I left the exhibit with a renewed desire to take pictures. I feel free to photograph what I want, when I want, and how I want – without judgment. This is a creative outlet for me that also serves purpose. The very definition of folk art.
And I left wanting to visit local flea markets – to find discarded photos and use them as creative writing prompts. The real story behind the picture may be lost, but I can create my own. All the necessary elements are there: setting, characters, context and even theme. Who knows, perhaps I will find my next novel idea from an old polaroid…
What story might you envision for this double-exposure “mistake”? 


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