Losing and Finding Our Past– The Hunt for the Vernacular

By Erika Gentry

Published in Exposure Magazine Spring 2008.
Edited by Carla Williams

The abundant use of digital cameras is said to have contributed to the closure of the Polaroid Corporation. Yet even today, at the peak of the digital photography revolution, nostalgia for the paper photograph exists. Once a quiet, gleaning pastime among a small group of dedicated enthusiasts, snapshot collecting is being re-examined by serious collectors. In fact, “vernacular” photography is relatively affordable compared to its well-known art market counterparts—and the hunt for them, which takes place at flea markets, antique stores, and increasingly, online, is intriguing itself. “Vernacular” is defined as “ordinary language: the everyday language of the people in a country or region, as distinct from official or formal language;” thus, vernacular photography means “ordinary pictures.” Its synonym is “found photography,” which refers to discarded snapshots captured by amateurs and re-found by collector enthusiasts with an eye for the unusual and a desire to re-interpret the antiquated mundane. Take for example, the website “The Found Photo” maintained and operated by Babette Hines, collector and author of Photobooth, a book showcasing more than 700 vernacular images taken in photobooths over the last seventy-five years. Hines’ extensive online collection possesses themes such as “smoking women,” “pet love,” “the lure of television” and “I look terrific.”

As an avid photography collector, the joy I get comes in finding snapshots that contain people or “happy accidents.” These are usually described by unique marks recorded unintentionally or otherwise by the camera and film medium. Happy accidents include multiple exposures, exaggerated motion, normal wear and tear and the appearance of manufacturer identity unique to film and paper. (Figure 1)
During a recent visit to a rural Oregon antique shop, I discovered an entire envelope of images captured by an American naval officer spanning the late 1930s. Included in the prized lot was an image of the San Francisco Bay Bridge under construction (completed in 1936) (Figure 2) and negatives of various naval objects and travels; amphibian airplanes on large ships, tropical landscapes and portraits of bathing suit-clad seamen in Panama (Figure 3). Finding these photographs was exciting and I was inspired to know more about one man’s journey and to investigate the time period of these strange military objects, which looked more like heavy-chrome Chevys than vehicles of float and flight.

(Figure 4)
(Figure 5)

Near my Bay Area home, I rescued a 5″x7″ glass copy negative from an outdoor flea market left unprotected from the day’s direct sun. Originally from a photographer’s studio long closed, I took it home and scanned it. Embedded in the glass I discovered an image of two figures—a child and young adult. Large circular white scratches around the child indicate an interesting attempt to eliminate the grown-ups seated behind him. Captured with one large sheet of film divided in two, the images were made with two exposures at different camera distances as illustrated by the magnification of pushpins holding the originals to a wooden wall. I assume that the images are of the same person taken many years apart, with the technical intention of creating a new original negative. In a simple effort to save materials, one mans life appears condensed and juxtaposed onto a single glass plate. (Figure 4) Another flea market trip yielded multiple 4″x5″ medical negatives in original paper envelopes complete with patient name, doctor name, and date. As contemporary objects, the images are evocative. Dated 1936, they are of blindfolded nude men and women with bandages on their arms (evidence of blood work). According to Dr. Stuart Kenter of Marin County, California, these clues point to possible studies of the then-popular theory of “body typing,” or somatotypes (Figure 5).

Like many artists before me, I enjoy not only collecting vernacular photography but also reworking and re-contextualizing them into objects of my own. Engaged in the projected allegorical fantasies inspired by the images, I enlarge them to super sizes, colorize and enhance them, collage them and add surface textures like encaustic. Working with found photographs as raw material is deeply satisfying, allowing me to examine photographic history and photography as cultural practice while at the same time creating my own work and process.

The art of collecting vernacular photography has become so popular that a documentary film on the subject has recently been released. Other People’s Pictures, from filmmakers Lorca Shepperd and Cabot Philbrick, examines the lives and minds of nine people who collect lost and discarded photographs. One man searches only for “male affection” snapshots of men embracing or holding hands. Another looks for pictures that simply tell an unfinished story. I identify with the filmmakers’ description of the collector: “ready to pay hundreds of dollars for a single picture, they hunt for the images that feed their fantasies and quiet the voices in their heads.” Recent and forthcoming books also abound on the subject. A few examples are The Art of the American Snapshot 1888-1978 (Princeton University Press, August 2007) Joachim Schmid’s Photoworks 1982-2007 (Steidl & Partners, February 2007) and Brian Wallis’ African American Vernacular Photography (Steidl/ICP, February 2006)

Alex Novak, thirty-year veteran collector, Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) member, and owner of Contemporary Works Gallery in Chalfont, Pennsylvania, says that the value of vernacular works largely depends on the definition itself. In a March 18, 2008 email to me he wrote:

“I have seen that range from important $200,000 anonymous images to $1 snapshots. There is no one source of such material and no sales records of only that type of material. Several small auction houses often have some of what has been referred to as vernacular photographs, but I really think the terminology and definition is the fundamental problem here. Speaking for myself, I think of vernacular photography as images taken “accidentally” by naïve, unsophisticated amateurs (as opposed to “professional” amateurs) and generally having rather low monetary value as such, but perhaps being a rich cultural trove to be plumbed. I do not believe all anonymous work falls into this category. But that’s me.”

(Figure 7)
(Figure 6)

A major show of vernacular works entitled, Loving Your Pictures, was on view in summer 2007 at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, which takes place annually throughout the ancient city of Arles, France. Presented by Amsterdam-based Erik Kessel—also the festival’s Creative Director—brought together original images and enlarged reproductions from his own collection. The festival utilizes heritage sites like churches, abbeys, abandoned train stations, and theatres as stunning gallery backdrops. Inside the ancient church, an installation from “In Almost Every Picture” depicted a Spanish woman carefully photographed by her husband in front of various vacation destinations during the years 1956-1968. Consistently composed and her gaze direct, the obsessive nature of the photographer is evident. (Figure 6). Acrylic family photo display cubes (originally 3×5”x3x5”) that graced the surfaces of many 1970s homes were reproduced at mega sizes—an estimated fifteen feet high when stacked series ofthrees. (Figure 7) Life-sized German officers, cut out and enlarged from an instruction manual on “how to wear your uniform,” were arranged in military-style formation. While faded chromogenic colors of red and cyan were left uncorrected, the enlarged installations of pictures as a whole invited meanings outside their original intended purpose.

With the shift toward pixel capture and the rapid disappearance of film and paper emulsions, the vernacular crop is dwindling. So, too, are our traditional archived notions of memory, existence, and identity. What, if anything, will replace the anonymous evidence of the found snapshot? What will become the new vernacular? Will a new breed of collectors attempt to revive images off of found CPUs, camera cards, or disks left un-migrated to physical or online form? Or will these images stay buried among dismantled computer parts sent to China for recycling? In an attempt to create the model of the new vernacular, there are intriguing methods of creating personal digital archives via social networking websites, metadata workflow, and photo sharing (such as Flickr.com). While these methods continue to evolve as we wire and keyword the world, the nostalgic thrill of hunting for a physical and singularly unique gelatin silver snapshot remains timeless.

The doomsday of traditional materials is evident, so much so that The Getty Conservation Institute is making efforts to archive twentieth-century prints and paper. On their website is a “call to help:”

“Scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute need your old photographic papers, film, negatives, and prints to build an archive of knowledge and materials from the era of classical photography. This archive will become a reference collection for future generations of photo conservators and scholars, and will allow them to research and authenticate the treasures of the classical photography era.”

In light of the dwindling vernacular crop and the increased sentimentality for the unique snapshot, the hunt for the vernacular spectacular is on. And, more than ever, so is the call to conserve your own images and memories, however faded they may be.

One thought on “Losing and Finding Our Past– The Hunt for the Vernacular

  1. I am fond of “Classic Photography”. I enjoy touching and holding the actual prints in my hands. I learned the art of photography, using a film camera, and developing my own prints in the darkroom. There is something so magical about film processing. It is understandable that there is such a growing and popular interest in vernacular photography. What if some day it no longer exists?


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