Snapshots

organized by Douglas R. Nickel (for SFMOMA)

ISBN: 0918471451

The pictures in this book are fascinating. They are not “art.” That is, they are not art in a self-recognized or self-promoted way because weren’t taken by “professional” photographers. Whatever the intentions and motivations were behind the the making of these images are now lost– the people who took these snapshots are now unknown.

This is a wonderful art book of photography, just the same.

The photographs are reproduced on heavy white paper, at approximately their original sizes. This means there isn’t anything to distract you from the image (not even a caption) as they float there on the oversized page, creating the space and time for you to look as long as you’d like. Some of my favorites:

  • A woman on a motorcycle with her dog in front of her, from the 1930s
  • An arm draped over a steering wheel and a view through the windshield, shot from the passenger seat, from the 1950s
  • Two children in a metal washtub with a man lying down behind them so it looks like he has no body, and off to the side is a kettle that was probably used to add hot water to the tub, from the 1930s
  • A woman in a print dress, facing a large bush with her back to the camera, from the 1940s
  • A crowd gathered below an elephant on a high wire, from the 1930s
  • A muscular man in a white tank top with his back to the camera and a large plume of smoke in front of him, from the 1940s
  • Shrubbery and the corner of a porch, with a hand rising up from the green, (one of a handful of color prints) from the 1970s

So many of the pictures here are alive, different, mysterious — why is that woman’s back to the camera? did the dog travel on the motorcycle? are his eyes watering from the smoke? — and so very human.

Snapshots is a catalogue from an exhibit held at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art in 1998. The only part of this collection that I don’t like is the writing at the beginning, as it is mostly concerned with justifying the snapshot as art in a museum context, and in demonstrating the supposed intellectual capacity of the curator. Which is to say it is safe to not read any of it as it doesn’t add anything to the pictures. I did, however, appreciate the credits in the back of the book that listed when each photograph was taken, as I was curious about that.

Worth looking at; highly recommended.

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