Snap Judgments

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Unidentified/ 1950s — Photo: National Gallery of Art

Incredibly, I’m back on the road again, again. (Didn’t I just get home?) I’ll be checking back in tomorrow. But before I leave town I wanted to offer a comment or two on “The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978,” a new show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which I caught an early look at a few weeks ago.

This is a show that needed to be done, not merely to trace the development of home photography from the introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888, but to remind us all that the snapshot was the crucial contribution to the universal image bank from which so much of subsequent art is drawn. What it fed into in particular was the great postwar photographic revolution of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, etc., etc.

They all worked with better cameras, mostly 33mms, but with a vision rendered cockeyed by their immersion in images from the primordial ooze of photographic folk art — birthday party pictures, kids playing in the yard, people holding cakes, goofing for the camera, whatever. The awkward poses in the typical snapshot, the vacant expressions, the odd juxtapositions of a head with a tree, it was all the stuff of a new kind of picture, one that unknowingly broke all the rules because the people who took them didn’t know what the rules were, or even that there were any. Even Diane Arbus, with her grave and weighty portraits taken with a twin-lens Rolleiflex — no Instamatics for her — owes some of the strangeness to in her work to the demotic weirdness of the people she would have seen in snapshots all her life.

The National Gallery show, which was curated by Sarah Greenough and Diane Waggoner, has a wonderfully weird and funny (in all senses) selection of snaps. I only wish it had been possible to combine them in later galleries with a few examples of Winogrand, Friedlander and so on, to show how an anti-aesthetic developed into, well, an aesthetic. It may not have been possible to do that with this show because it’s drawn entirely from the holdings of a single collector, Robert E. Jackson. But it stands on its own as a great adventure into the terra incognita that is us.

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