THE SNAPSHOT AS SOCIAL MEMORY
By Weston Naef, curator of photographs, The J. Paul Getty Museum
If all human existence is essentially social, then snapshot photography has become the chief visual instrument of social memory.
There seems to be a profound gulf between the kind of photographs usually collected by art museums and amateur photography. To many, snapshots which were often separated from their owners and then rediscovered by others, present a mystery to be solved.
In the 1990s, artist-collector-dealers Gail Pine, Jacqueline Woods, and Norman Kulkin; as well as actor Mitch Longley; writer Babbette Hines; collectors Bruce Berman, Michael Blasgen, and Michael Wilson; and the husband-and-wife fine-art printing team of Guy Stricherz and Irene Malli began to collect snapshots by amateur photographers. For the most part, these photographs were originally found in outdoor markets and secondhand shops. The process of gathering and selecting individual images for this exhibition (and the accompanying book) was a truly joint effort on the part of the artists, collectors, and museum curator. We were drawn to particular images that raised the question: Why was this photograph made?
The important role of artists and writers as hoarders and exploiters of snapshot imagery is not surprising, as artists are often instrumental in the process of discovering meaning in lost, abandoned, and overlooked artifacts in search of the raw material of art. "I am drawn to snapshots because an unknown past, the living present of the picture itself, and an unknown future that occurred after the picture was made compel me to silently speculate on the unknowns," Woods commented.
Artists are also governed by imagination, which is liberated from the constraints of conventional thinking. Pine's interest in snapshots, for example, was born out of the loss of her father and through him the loss of a large part of her own familial photo history. "In some ways my collecting creates a new family for me to replace the broken one, complete with their own strengths, imperfections, and idiosyncrasies. In every picture of a man standing hands-in-pockets I search for the image of my lost father, who took many of the pictures with him," she reflected.
Likewise, artists are often the first to explore uncharted visual terrain. Kulkin, an artist as well as a collector and dealer in found photographs, recalled while studying his own family photographs how he collapsed his own childhood recollections with pictures of actual events that had taken place before his birth and at times and places he never witnessed, as if the memories were the result of his own firsthand experience. This phenomenon causes us to contemplate the central feature of memory, which is that experiences alter subsequent experience and behavior.
The familiar adage that truth is stranger than fiction is played out in the pictures in Close to Home: An American Album, all of which were inspired by actual lives once lived. "You cannot invent the truth," Hines remarked, to which collector and engineer Michael Blasgen countered, "Every photograph is a lie, for in fact time does not stand still." Yet a photograph is a real object that suspends a vivid moment in time, traps it in light-sensitive materials, and fixes it indefinitely for another view and experience.
The most common way in which the content of pictures is conveyed is through words. However, words alone often fail to describe and decipher the full meaning of snapshots. We must rely, then, on the eyes in concert with the heart for their emotional meaning to be revealed.
Though devoid of written explanation, these pictures clearly reveal events in the timelines of individual histories—from the experience of being single to bonding in couples or groups, the genesis of family, the experience of travel, the cultivation of material desires and pride of ownership. The pictures unfold in a chronicle of repeated experiences, the script of life that invariably begins "close to home": men standing alone, observed by their wives, mothers, or friends; women standing alone, observed by husbands or lovers; girlfriends and pals posing together; as well as couples indoors and out. These artifacts of people's lives reveal a shared desire to document their houses, cars, and fashions as emblems of identity.
All human beings search for meaning in their lives and experiences, and all observers of snapshots bring their own histories to the creation of meaning. Every person who visits this exhibition will have a different reason for stopping to gaze at one image or another, yet all will be able to relate their own personal experiences to the content of the pictures that draw them in. The social fuel of snapshots resides in their abundance, not their rarity; and their vast quantity expresses the collective social experience of postindustrial American society.
Not every snapshot is a masterpiece, but some are more emblematic of the collective experience than others, and some are better crafted or better preserved, or exceptional in the recording of human expression, pose gesture, costume and place, thus enhancing their cultural and historical importance. Quality and value in a snapshot are measured by the accuracy with which they reflect our collective social conscience as well as by their potential to connect each of us as individuals and by their power to spur our empathy.
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Close to Home: An American Album
Introductory essays by D.J. Waldie and Weston Naef
More than 100 found images by anonymous photographers and a selection of vibrant color images from the 1940s through the 1960s reprinted by contemporary artist Guy Stricherz create an unpretentious portrait of suburban American life. Getty Publications. 128 pages. Paperback: $24.95. Publication date: mid-October. Available at the Getty Bookstore, by calling 800-223-3431, or online at www.getty.edu.
The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Grant Program. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs are based at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
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