Sarah Greenough and Diane Waggoner with Sarah Kennel and Matthew S. Witkovsky, The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978, 2007 (Princeton University Press, $55)
Marvin Heiferman, Now Is Then: Snapshots from the Maresca Collection, 2007 (Princeton Architectural Press, $29.95)
Andrew Bush, Drive, 2008 (Yale University Press, $65)
By 1900, George Eastman finally had the camera he wanted. For 20 years or so, Eastman had layered improvement over improvisation, purchased competing patents, and produced camera after camera. With the introduction of the "Brownie," which could be sold for only $1, a corner had been turned. This magical box, with its image-making power, allowed almost anyone to become a photographer -- and many did.
The Brownie remained in production, in various versions, until 1970, and was responsible for producing millions upon millions of snapshots. Amateur photographers turned the camera on their immediate surroundings, and their pictures remain provincial and mundane, of interest largely to their own circle of family and friends. The resulting works orbit around tradition, the home and family, and are often as deliberate as they are naïve.
Interestingly, though technology has changed, our ways of recording the personal haven’t. Though the analog snapshot may have been rendered obsolete by the digital age, one needs only to peruse a photo-sharing website like Flickr.com to understand that our collective finger remains on the shutter. Not only do we all take pictures, but we all take pictures of the same things.
In this vast sea of images, some stand out. A tension, a chafing between innocence and intent, can produce surprising results. A photograph included in The Art of the American Snapshot finds two sailors sunbathing sometime in the 1940s, somewhere in the Pacific. What’s striking is that they are naked except for caps positioned over their genitals.
Here, modesty is accompanied by good cheer, and the joke is shared by two other sailors whose feet we can see in the background. For a moment, war recedes, slipping away like a mild Victorian chuckle. What the photograph ignores -- the horror and carnage of modern warfare -- is what makes it interesting.
And perhaps, that’s exactly the point. As Sarah Greenough writes, optimistically, about the snapshot in her vibrant introduction: "Liberated from the constraints of the marketplace, they are curious mixtures of originality and conventionality that often present highly inventive pictorial solutions -- whether by accident or intent -- while simultaneously preserving inherited subjects and poses."
Culled from the collection of Robert E. Jackson, the photographs range through time in a delightful ramble. A Seattle businessman, Jackson scoured yard sales and antique stores and over time acquired more than 9,000 photographs, 138 of which he donated to the National Gallery’s photography collection. Chronologically arranged and of original size, the photographs seize the page with their humor, or dourness, or supple aplomb.
A baby, in a handmade sled crafted from a crate that reads "Keep in a cool dry place," sits stranded on a snowy street like an astronaut on the moon. A woman flashes the middle finger, mimicking the single candle in her birthday cake. (Cakes abound, as if to underline the link of the snapshot with celebration.)
Darker notes are rarely struck: a man hangs upside down from a telephone pole; and a newspaper box announcing the news of John F. Kennedy’s death is photographed with an unsteady hand, suggesting the push of emotion at work. Also, few images document the private lives of African Americans and other minorities. Surely, that, too, is part of this American story. Still, what is inadvertent here becomes important, the vernacular turns transcendent.
As Marvin Heiferman notes, "Snapshots may appear to be naïve, but they are seldom innocent." In Now Is Then: Snapshots from the Maresca Collection, in which Heiferman’s essay appears, the tone struck is earthier than The American Snapshot, perhaps reflecting the tastes of the collector, Frank Maresca. Himself a photographer, Maresca brings a wider lens to bear: the inclusion of people of color, a knowing sexuality, hints of violence and disarray.
Even the photographs themselves seem rough and weathered, mementos pawed over and gazed upon. In one photograph from the 1960s, a boy dressed in a suit poses in front of a television set. The photograph is so lined and creased that its texture adds a swirling, painterly intensity to the picture. Maresca’s collection has an urbane grittiness that is missing from The Art of the American Snapshot, which seems more pastoral and quiet by comparison.
As Maresca says in an interview included in the book, "These pictures would have something ‘off’ about them." And that something resonates with a tabloid fury that these anonymous photographers must have known as well.
For his latest series of pictures, Los Angeles photographer Andrew Bush photographed people in their cars, framing an unknown subject, sometimes stopped in traffic and often at speeds of over 70 miles per hour, and a certain vehicular poetry is achieved. Bush’s camera retards the blur of travel and captures his subjects in ordinary moments with extraordinary detail, while still imbuing what we see with ambiguity.
The book’s title, Drive, tells only the beginning of the story. It provides the setting, primarily California freeways, where, as in snapshots, the subjects wield their personalities to great effect. And Bush, with a tripod instead of a passenger seat, captures the bleed that occurs between commuter and conveyance.
At times, the car seems like a cyborgian appendage. The curves of the automobiles are like sculptural elements, burnished to a high patina, dusted by the wind. The people inside are everything and nothing. Fully realized narratives accelerate and disappear. Or, strangers unwittingly share everything for Bush’s camera, and their travels, seemingly, never end.
Snapshots, cast adrift from their original contexts, can have an uncanny portentousness that approaches the Surreal. In Andrew Bush’s images of the anonymous American everyman-behind-the-wheel, we see an eerily similar disconnect.
ROBERT MOELLER Is a writer and painter living in Cambridge, Mass.