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A Discussion of Snapshot Photography

David Campany
Senior Lecturer
History & Theory of Photography
Surrey Institute of Art & Design University College

Much of the social significance of photography has derived from its most accessible and popular forms. The snapshot camera, the instant film and the photobooth are three examples of photography at its most technically simplified. At the same time these are three of the most socially complex modes of photography, particularly in their close connection to notions of family, leisure, memory and identity.

In many respects the technical standardisation of the snapshot camera and the photobooth are inseparable from the social standardisation of their use. For example, family albums may consist of individual snapshots but there is often little spontaneity in their conventional and repetitive imagery. Structured by thoroughly social conventions the family snapshot is as much a public image as a private one. Similarly the photobooth evolved as an instrument of the state and its history is intimately bound up with matters of social surveillance and the law. Yet it is these very social and technical restrictions and functions that have made the snapshot and the photobooth such rich areas of critical and creative reflection.

Over the last few decades artists, curators and cultural theorists have shown a great deal of interest in photography's popular forms. For example practitioners as diverse as Andy Warhol, Susan Hiller, Liz Rideal and Dick Jewell have explored the photobooth image. For Warhol it was the fascinating opposite of the celebrity portrait: anonymous, standard and throwaway, with its own accidental aesthetic. In her 'Photomat Portrait Series' of the 1970s Susan Hiller approached the photo booth as a way of reworking of the traditions of portraiture and also as a way to explore the complex relations between subject, artist and machine. For Liz Rideal the photobooth can produce images of extraordinary pictorial and formal beauty, particularly when they form part of a larger pre-planned collage. Dick Jewell has been attracted to discarded, damaged and rejected photobooth images. Collating them he has produced anthologies of these marginal and unwanted portraits that are as poignant as they are amusing.

The discarded snapshot has been raw material for art at least since the avant-gardes of the 1920s. For many post-war European artists the found photo has been a means by which to explore the connection between public and private histories. The painter Gerhard Richter has been assembling his photographic 'Atlas' for nearly forty years. Consisting of over six hundred gridded panels of photos 'Atlas' brings together news cuttings, found images and his own photos made as studies for paintings to produce a rich and complex archive. Joachim Schmid takes an encyclopaedic approach to found images, collating them by subject matter in order to draw out the deeply collective conventions through which we make photographs of our individual lives. In the many artists' books and installations of Christian Boltanski the discarded portrait photo becomes a metaphor for the anonymity of postwar life and death, always haunted by the traumas and displacements of the Second World War.

For Jo Spence, the speed, simplicity and accessibility of snapshot photography made it the ideal medium to explore the ways in which memory, self image and family image are structured through class, gender and the body. Revisiting her own memories through re-enactments for the camera, she managed to harness the snapshot as means to unlock repressions and look behind the often superficial appearances of the family album. With Patricia Holland, Spence also edited 'Family Snaps' (1991) one of the first collections of essays to directly address the social significance of domestic photography. Many other essays and anthologies of writings looking at the subject have appeared since, notably the recent collection 'The Familial Gaze' (1999) edited by Marianne Hirsch.

As the distinctions between media begin to blur (even photobooths now produce their images digitally), the snapshot finds itself at the intersection of several technologies. These have produced their own aesthetic conditions away from slick professionalism. Miniature instant film cameras, the lomo, the photobooth sticker, the low-grade digital camera and the mobile phone camera have all made virtues out of their simplicity. In the process they have opening up the possibility of radically new connections between the photographic image and everyday life.

Bibliography

Books, articles and other resources to help you explore snapshot photography

Photographers

Explore the minds behind the V&A Snap Happy Days photography workshops

Do it!

Fact sheets on trying snapshot photography at home