Saturday, February 14, 2009

From the Archive: Five Great Snapshots

(Above) Number One, silver gelatin print, c. 1945; Talk about a powerful, mysterious image! These two men appear not to want their photograph taken. It’s just a very different, unique kind of snapshot.
(Above) Number Two, silver gelatin print, c. 1950; Ooo-h baby, I love this. I has all the qualities of a great mystery novel, or classical art. You have purity (innocence, with the baby); you have evil (the dark shadow); and you have the garden hose serving as the “snake” in the garden.
(Above) Number Three, silver gelatin print, c. 1935; You couldn’t prop a photo as wonderful as this picture today. I could talk about this image a lot. The child warrior rides again, the last of her lost tribe! It’s magical.
(Above) Number Four, silver gelatin print, c. 1955; If you know the work of Sally Mann, this is a perfect match. As an image, what I find compelling about this image is the subject matter. On the left, you have this little girl, kinda awkward and goofy, eating a watermelon. On the right, a girl of the same age either putting on or taking off her shirt. What a beautiful shoulder, the angle of her arm! It’s a statement about the emergence from adolescence to adulthood—an American “Venus de Milo.” This image has it all.
(Above) Number Five, silver gelatin print, c. 1940; This picture, a mistake made during the exposure, actually has perfect tonality. For some reason it is looking lighter online. The light spot sits perfectly around the little girls head, like a protective bubble. The mother looks none too happy.

WHENEVER I EXHIBIT MY COLLECTION OF VERNACULAR PHOTOS, I always leave each image “untitled.” That is because I do not want to contaminate a viewer’s thinking as to what they are looking at with my wild guess inference as to what is going on in the picture. I wasn’t there—so your guess is as good as mine. And I sincerely mean that. These images are mysteries as to who, what, when and where. We might be able to get close—but unless someone in the photo steps up to identify the situation, we are left with our own resources to figure it out. Things are not always what they seem.

Why do I call these great images? Well, since I didn’t take them, I feel much like a curator at a museum. I found the images, selected them, gave them a new life. Therefore, I should be able to discuss them with a critical eye.

Here are my criteria for the qualities of a great photograph.

1) Compositionally, it must be extremely good if not perfect. It must work, and deal with formal design issues, if even abstractly.

2) Tonality must be extremely good. There is nothing more frustrating than a photograph that is missing this quality. A severely over or under-exposed image that is great in all the other categories can make a good (but sensitive) man cry.

3) Subject matter: can be anything, but the image must be powerful. It must leave room for interpretation, beg for answers. It must have several levels of interest, both visually and intellectually. As an image, how rare is it that you would ever see something like this again?

4) Condition: The physical condition of the picture must be at least “good,” to excellent.

5) Comparison: This is very personal to my collecting eye, but the image must remind me of some great photographer’s work. Does the piece remind me of little Sally Mann, WeeGee, Friedlander, or any other photographer of the 19th or 20th Century? If it does—it “connects” to art history. I like that.


Jens Alfke said...

These are beautiful and mysterious. I can't decide which of #3, #4, #5 is my favorite

Tattered and Lost said...

Though I like all of these I'd have to say #3 is the one that stands out for me. It's reminiscent of an 18th through early 19th century portrait. I can easily imagine this as a large painting done in oils hanging on the wall in a stately manor. It would make an amazing painting.

Tattered and Lost said...

And isn't it interesting how we always seem to think a shadow cast on someone is somehow representing evil? I too have several photos of children with shadows cast next to them, often the child is squinting into the sun thus causing them to have an expression almost of fear. The reality of the situation is no doubt the opposite.

Kim and David said...

I love your collection, John. You have managed to pull together some amazing images. It's interesting how we, as the collector, interpretate it through our eye and mind. Kim

Colin said...

these are great John! I Love It! Dedicated my last blog to you & Confluence Chris with some photos of my own. Cheers!

dani d. said...

i love these images. one of my favourite things to do is to dig through old snapshots, but i don't have any sort of criteria about what i pick out! sometimes it's the clothes their wearing, the composition, the expressions on their faces... nonetheless, i love the one of the two girls and had never heard of sally mann so i'm looking into her!

-dani d.

dani d. said...

i lied, haha. i learned about her (and loved her work) in my history of photography class. thanks for reminding me!

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