The emergence of art photography in the 1970s was one in which art photographers were taking pictures and looking at pictures without worrying too much about what constitutes a picture, or the ontology of photographic pictures. The street photography in the 1970s worked within pictorial realism without being bothered about the epistemic value (namely the value pictures possess insofar as they may furnish a viewer with knowledge of the things they depict) compared to handmade pictures such as paintings or prints. It was taken for granted that the on-the-street snapshot photography, lies within the broad realist tradition and the common place; and, as a commonplace expression, it is part of the popular, vernacular image culture with all its paradoxes and polarities.
The background was two influential exhibitions of snapshot photography: Edward Steichen’s famous show from 1955, The Family of Man and John Szarkowski’s 1964 exhibition The Photographer’s Eye. The former emphasised the message of the photographs to the exclusion of the medium, whilst the latter emphasised the medium to the exclusion of the complex social and political network to which the snapshot is bound. If both exhibitions foregrounded the role of the curator, not the artist, thereby re-situating aesthetic genius (or the photographic visionary) from photographer to curator, they also tacitly suggested that snapshots, to paraphrase Hegel, were “the prose of the modern world”— the central mode of visual perception. Visual understanding is snapshot understanding according to Kodak.
The snapshot aesthetic is usually understood as an informal photograph taken quickly, typically with a small, handheld, high quality 35mm camera. Realism is often interpreted as a ‘styleless’ or transparent style, a mere simulacrum or mirror image of visual reality; realistic looking snapshots often seem to have no style at all, or appear unstylized. As photo historian Geoffrey Batchen puts it, the form of amateur photographic practice snapshot photographs is “predictable, conservative, and repetitive in both form and content”. The snapshot is the antithesis of romantic imagery, creativity and narrative.
However, snapshots, far from being innocent, are pre-meditated, culturally defined, and oriented toward a very particular end. They have long been culturally inscribed, their form and content determined before anyone presses the shutter button. This “absence of style” is itself a style —- it was used in advertising to provide glamour, aura, and refinement to countless products, brands and organisations within a visual rhetoric of authenticity.
One of the features of the pictures made within a snapshot photography has been its ability to arrest the linear course of events, and to offer still’ slices’ of the undetermined flow of time and movement. These ‘frozen’ fragments of reality have been interpreted as both preserving a lasting memory of what has been, and a photo-image making as an immediate experience of everyday life. There is a duality in this aesthetic: spontaneous yet composed; authentic yet constructed; realistic yet sophisticated. The visual style is constructed precisely to seem unconstructed, manufactured to be read as spontaneous.
The modernist usage of the snapshot aesthetic is exemplified in the art photography of Robert Frank, Garry Winograd and Lee Friedlander. Underpinning this art photography was a key tenet of a modernist aesthetic: that an art photograph functions as an expression of the photographer’s subjectivity, a vehicle for his/her thoughts, feelings and so on. If art photography’s achievements are based largely on an aesthetic of the photographic – meaning that there are distinct inherent properties of the medium itself that give it value as an art-form —- then the skilled practitioner can employ these properties in order to produce expressive work. This is outlined in John Szarkowski’s ‘Introduction’ to The Photographer’s Eye.
The culture of the snapshot can be discerned in the entrenched convention of the street photograph’s ethos of shooting and hunting on the urban streets; the camera as a gun always ready to shoot; and the photographer as a hunter on the streets looking for meaningful, memorable moments to record for artistic or personal use. This longstanding notion of photography as an inherently aggressive act, in which the snapshot photographer exercises power over what is photographed, is most closely associated with Susan Sontag’s critique of it in her On Photography.
There is a diverse use of the snapshot aesthetic in a snapshot culture. One mode is the potential to express one’s own vision of oneself and of history, as exemplified in the work of Carol Jerrems, Ruth Maddison, Sue Ford and Ponch Hawkes. They use snapshot photography as an intimate expression of individual concern to counter photography’s masculine gaze and its aesthetics of detachment. The snapshot aesthetic also lends itself to the creation and validation of a personal history, alternative modes of social belonging, and the potential to aid the construction of alternative group identities.
An example is Nan Goldin’s snapshot photography of the hard-drug subculture of the Bowery neighbourhood in New York in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, and of herself, her friends, family and community in the latter Soeurs, Saintes, et Sibylles (Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls). There is Robert Rooney’s idea of the camera as a “dumb recorder” of the most ready-at-hand patterns of daily life; his serial production of artworks deprived from Minimalism; and his use of Kodak’s industrial methods of production to question the fetishisation of the unique original art work and to displace notions about creative authority.
Snapshots have been interpreted as a central mode of understanding of the transitory, fleeting character of industrial modernity. Painting had been pushed to the edges by photography in that the photographic image signals a reconfiguration of the way in which we understand ourselves and, equally, the way in which we understand ourselves in relation to the being of history. The advent of photography marks a veritable transformation of our relation to history.
The relationship of the photographic image to history was explored by Siegfried Kracauer, who was concerned with how an enlightened modernity might transcend its capitalist shackles and deliver on its promise of mass equality and freedom. Kracauer interpreted the Weimar Republic’s chronic instability as evidence of the Enlightenment’s unfinished project of rationalisation. If the conditions of Weimar Germany resulted from the forestalment of the Enlightenment project, then could the mass entertainments and representational media of the modem era potentially radical surface expressions of modernity’s mostly unrealised liberatory potential.
In exploring the petrified, frozen landscape of history in modernity through the surfaces of the snapshot Kracauer held that though the photograph is a representation of time, photographs need to be distinguished memory images:
“An individual retains memories because they are personally significant. Thus, they are organised according to a principle which is essential different from the organising principle of photography. Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory images retain what is given only insofar as it has significance. Since what is significant is not reducible to either merely spatial or merely temporal terms, memory images are at odds with photographic representations.”
Kracauer observes that it is possible to read photographs as material expressions of a particular historical condition. He says that modern photography:
“is a secretion of the capitalist mode of production. The same mere nature that appears in the photograph flourishes in the reality of the society created by capitalist mode of production …The turn to photography is the go-for-broke of history.”
The go-for-broke of history refers to new possibilities surfacing in the photographic approach’s ability to grasp the historical state that industrial capitalism has created: a seemingly autonomous society and culture that appears as a state of nature. Photography as a medium that could potentially undermine the uncritical assumptions of positivist historical discourse by giving the presumably dead world of things a form of speech. Kracauer argues that the photograph presents us with a radically discontinuous temporality, a set of “alien trappings” from the past which reveal the arbitrary nature of past conditions, and by implication the arbitrary and “provisional status of all given configurations”, including those in the present.
Photography’s lack of ‘historical’ depth, the fact that it captures nothing more than a mere residuum, provides an important degree of critical distance with respect to our former entanglement with nature and its corresponding economic laws. Kracauer’s combination of Jewish messianism, Gnosticism, and Marxism vision of creation and transformation holds that photography ruptures the ostensible coherence of the dominant culture and publicity, reflects the disintegrated fragments of nature as detritus and disorder and reconfigures the elements of nature in an emancipatory way. This points up the provisional status of all given configurations and the suspension of every habitual relationship. Photography can destabilise its viewer by encounters with material contingency, mortality and physical shocks.
Benjamin develops Kracauer’s connections between the photographic image, history and the effects of industrial capitalism with his concept of profane illumination.Profane illumination is the gesture that redeems the fragmentary as fragmentary, lifting up shattered ruins anew out of their disenchantment in virtue of the fractured totality of which they were formerly a part. by saying that in the flash of recognition past and present become conjoined for a fleeting moment. Atget’s photos depicting empty urban streets and the bare facades of Parisan architecture does not offer an empty mimesis, but rather a veritable production of visibility. Profane illumination is an activity that takes up the disenchanted fragments of the past, shattered or obsolescent images and objects, in order to redeem them in light of the very lost totality of which they were previously a part.
The snapshot opens up the unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to our unconscious impulses. The snapshot’s mimesis facilitates the possibility of forging a link between self and other through our desire to seek similarities in the world as a means of relating to it and to empathise with others.
If the snapshots in the Bowden Archives are out of kilter to the experimentation in narrative, hand-colouring and sequential images, they can be understood as akin to relics that keep the memory alive. If they are the clichés of visual culture, they are also the containers of old experiences: they contain, in a sense, the experiences and observations of former experiences. As sites of memory, these photographic images do not offer a view on history; rather they act rather as mnemonic devices in that they are perceptual phenomena upon which a historical representation may be constructed. The Bowden Archives are a memory of Australian modernity and photographic culture in the last quarter of the 20th century.
If photography in the 1960s was unknown territory, then the 1980s in Australia was a period of postmodernism’s resistance to, and critique of, the frozen assumptions of Clement Greenberg’s style of American modernist formalism, and the deconstruction of the legacy of modernist photography as a fine art. Street photography was equated with photo journalism, whilst documentary photography continued to remain unfashionable: it was interpreted as being intrinsically transparent to its subject matter. This transparency rendered photography impossible as an art work because in merely giving us the object it cannot have aesthetic significance. The theoretical attack on both snapshot photography’s assumptions about truth and on photographic realism as a positivism was widespread and influential. Realism and positivism were treated as identical.
Despite realism and documentary photography being seen as dated and obsolescent by modernism and postmodernism, a critical discourse around documentary photography in the 1980s emerged. This opened up a critical space to think about the significance of realist photography. Photodiscourse: Critical Thought and Practice in Photography edited by Kurt Bremerton in 1981 was the first book in Australia to bring together critical thought and theoretical writing and practice in a dialogue. Working Papers on Photography (WPOP) was produced by ex-students at Prahran Art School between 1978-1983,m and it was the most overtly photographic publication in Australia at the time. It endeavoured to provide a critical discussion about photography, develop the idea of photographic critique, and explore the ideology of the image.
WPOP put on an influential photography conference in Melbourne in 1980 where Allan Sekula’s keynote talk was ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’. He argued that the meaning of a photograph, like that of any other entity, is inevitably subject to cultural definition and he critically engaged with a photographic discourse. Sekula showed, firstly, that photography’s indexical relation to the world was more complex than the mirroring one of positivism, and that the various meanings of a photograph is constructed by both its referential status as well as by various cultural systems. Secondly, art photography’s traditional response to the positivist conception of photography (as a window on the world) was to get around photography’s transparency by saying that the picture was mediated by the photographer’s creative decisions, interventions, manipulations and artistic vision.
The 1980s postmodernism of Art and Text was a sea change in its highlighting Andy Warhol’s comprehension of of the art world as a spectacle. As a crucial part of a critical photo discourse it took the various forms of studio practice, appropriationist art practices, issues of identity and the body, conflation between realism and positivism, rejection of the purity of specific artistic medium in favour of the tradition of a mixed and hybrid media. This postmodernism, in highlighting the importance of pictures as pictures, highlighted the significant change in our cultural world: the excess of images outside of the institution of art, the sense that the primacy and exclusivity of “pure” or “high” art was giving way before the vernacular visuality of everyday culture; and the undermining of the separation of art history from visual studies.
This resulted in the exploration of the field of photography itself, consumer imagery, and the commercial applications of photography in advertising. This exploration — eg., Imants Tillers, Juan Davila, Anne Zahalka, Bonita Ely and Susan Norrie — was a critical playing in the field of the image through employing a strategies of quotation, parody, juxtaposition and disjunction to question and comment on the culture and conventions of the visual art. This displaced the modernist emphasis on employing elements of the photographic aesthetic as an expression of the artist’s interior world or subjectivity. Postmodernism enabled the shift from engaging in photography about photography, to an image-making about the image.
For the postmodernism of Art and Text the 1970s, its celebratory modes and politics and art were the past. In response we can recover the fragments in the complex web of relations between the photographic image, history and the effects of industrial capitalism. We can redeem the fragmentary as fragmentary, lifting up the shattered ruins, refuse and detritus anew out of their history. This form of remembrance is a redemption of what has been lost.
Candid Camera: Australian Photography 1950s-1970s, Julie Robinson, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2010.
Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses, Caroline Jones, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2006.
Illuminations, Walter Benjamin, trans Harry Zohn, Fontana, London, 1973.
“Little History of Photography” in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2 part 2, 1931-34, ed. Howard Elland, Michael W. Jennings and Gary Smith, Harvard University Press, Camp. Mass. 1999
On Photography, Susan Sontag, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1977.
Photodiscourse: Critical Thought and Practice in Photography, edited by Kurt Bremerton, Sydney College of the Arts, 1981.
Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973–1983, Alan Sekula, Mack Books, 2016.
Photography At The Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis,1994
Photography: Theoretical Snapshots, eds. J. J. Long, Andrea Noble and Edward Welch, (Routledge, London, 2009)
Realism, Linda Nochlin, Penguin, New York, 1971
Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images, Catherine Zuromskis, MIT Press, Cambridge,
“Snapshots: Art History and the Ethnographic Turn”, Geoffrey Batchen, Photographies 1.2 (2009), pp. 121-42, p.121.
“Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia”, Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: Volume 2 part 1. 1927-1930, ed. Howard Elland, Michael W. Jennings and Gary Smith, Harvard University Press, Camb. Mass. 1999.
The Photographer’s Eye, John Szarkowski, MOMA, New York, 1966.
What is This Thing Called Photography?: Australian Photography 1975-1985, edited Ewen McDonald and Judy Annear, Pluto Press, London, 2000.