Reading : Snapshots by Geoffrey Batchen

Geoffrey Batchen discusses the limited availability of written history about snapshot photography as a genre and the reasons why . He notes ‘modernist art historical discourse , with its narrow emphasis on avant-garde practice and aesthetics remained the the dominant way of talking about photography’s history throughout the twentieth century’ (p.g 125 ) .He continues that the majority of snapshots are tedious and dull and discusses the difficulty of making a hypothesis due to the proliferation of snapshot imagery , what to leave out , what is important.

He speculates as to why we take so many family photographs , what can we make of them retrospectively and why our own snapshots are so moving . Batchen suggests we feel compelled into taking copious amounts of photographs because snapshots are capable of conjuring up the past , ‘ a trace that both confirms the reality of existence and remembers it’ The snapshot outlives the original subject to evolve into a treasured ‘talisman’ . Furthermore they ‘might also be regarded as a collective declaration of faith in the midst of an increasingly secular world’ (p.g 135) .

He also proposes due to their lack of artistic merit this ‘shifts the burden of imaginative thought from the artist and subject , where historians usually seek it , to the viewer , who is invited by such pictures to see much more than meets the eye’ (p.g 134) . A photograph of a cherished person ‘conjures how they were then and how I am now , in the same all-encompassing look’ (p.g 134).

Snapshots are rarely included in customary histories of photography because they are ‘cloyingly sentimental in content and repetitively uncreative as pictures , having little value in the marketplace of either ideas or commodities. For all these reasons , they don’t easily fit into a historical narrative still anxiously , insecurely , focused on originality , innovation , and individualism ‘ ( p.g 123) . However Batchen suggests turning this idea of family snapshots on its head and viewing it from another angle ,’family photographs challenge us to find another way of talking about photography’ ( p.g 124) and to do that the standard principles for writing histories of photography need to be reconsidered. He points out that even though the majority of images ‘are about conformity , not innovation or subversion’ (p.g 125) if carefully examined , despite the similarities of pose , they are also not quite the same.

He discusses the problem of writing a history about a medium that ‘escapes easy definition , has no discernible boundaries , and operates on the principle of reflection’ (p.g 126) . Only a carefully chosen small number of images fit the requirements to be included in an art history of photography , histories that frequently commemorate ‘singular achievements and their moment of origins , so that even objects having multiple manifestations and meanings are treated as unique and individual events’ ( p.g 125) . This practice diminishes the unique features of photography that have become part of modern society. Batchen states ‘the problem I have with our existing , standard histories of photography is not just the matter of content ( of what’s included or excluded from that history ) . My concern is with the mode of historical discourse itself , and with the conceptual infrastructure on which this history is built’ ( p.g 126) .

However change is taking place ‘evidenced by the publications of a new generation of interdisciplinary scholars who take for granted that photography is predominately a vernacular practice and has always been a global experience’ (p.g 126) . Batchen considers the role of visual culture methodology , and how this in turn has motivated him to investigate

– The significance of the owner not the creator
– The response of the owner

Rather than the study of individual photographers visual culture has stimulated explorations of different genres of photography and practice. However ,as Batchen points out , it is not without its critics because of what is considered ‘its affinity with “anthropological discourse” and therefore with an analytical relativism that erases cultural and temporal specificities’ ( p.g 127)

The conundrum for Batchen is ‘what would a representative sample of snapshots look like, anyway , and how would one go about choosing it ?’ (p.g 129). The popularity of vernacular photography and the snapshot has become increasingly commonplace. Batchen suggests this could be due to their historical relevance in a digital age, ‘the advent of digital technologies means that this kind of photography has now taken on an extra memorial role’ which ‘suffuses snapshots with the aesthetic appeal of a seductive melancholy , whatever their actual age or the particularities of their subject matter’ (p.g 130) . As well as their status as an aide mémoire snapshots are also documents , they record private and communal histories . He further discusses their role in the history of photography , how images provide ‘a social history of the snapshot itself….tracing the founding of the Eastman Kodak company in 1888 (p.g 130) which , as noted in my 4th assignment , used clever marketing that emphasised the ease of use of its cameras and their ability to freeze time.

Batchen discusses two publications:

1. Snapshots:The Photography of Everyday Life , 1888 to the present. Distributed by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1998
2.Other Pictures , published in 2000 simultaneously with an exhibition snapshots provided from a collection belonging to Thomas Walther in New York , at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Both collections were exhibited in non-chronlogical order with minimum written information. Seen out of context Batchen concedes ‘ these pictures do become precious , even extraordinary’ (p.g 130 ) but contends they tell us little about the snapshot as a socio- cultural event . From the large number of available snapshot images only a comparatively few were chosen, Batchen comments that they are in fact simply an accolade ‘to the sharp eye of their collector/curator’ (p.g 131) that helps perpetuate the influence of art history on photography.

The National Gallery of Washington’s exhibition publication in 2007 is considered by Batchen to be ‘the best publication on the snapshot that has been produced to date’ (p.g 131) containing a written social history. Yet he feels this too falls short because the ‘exhibition and book are based on one private collection’ (p.g 131) . Owned by a trained art historian they were chosen because of their inventive and unique qualities, hardly representative of the more usual boring features associated with snapshot photography, ‘but the National Gallery of Art is not going to mount an exhibition devoted to boring pictures and is therefore constitutionally unable to present a representative history of the snapshot’ ( p.g 132) . A representative history of the visual culture of photography has to acknowledge and account for boredom and ubiquity , the medium’s most abiding visual qualities.

One such publication Close to Home : An American Album is described by Batchen as ‘not very compelling to look at ——these particular snapshots do look very much like the ones in my own shoebox;that is , they look like pictures of nothing much’ (p.g 132) . The publication by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles contains both colour and b&w images presented out of context and printed at different sizes that ‘it is argued , restores the creative exchange between viewer and photograph that has been otherwise lost in the transfer from family achieve to art book’ (p.g 132) . Batchen acknowledges that viewing snapshots out of context enables you to evaluate more minor details and consider how the images are cropped and composed ‘allowing these books to successfully turn a private act into a public art. But this process also happens to be a convenient way for each of these publications to avoid having to address itself to the specific character of the snapshot as a genre of photography’ (p.g 133) .

Two interconnecting qualities are identified by Batchen as specifically characteristic of snapshot photography.

– Snapshots are formulaic / traditional
– Despite these qualities they ‘are capable of inducing a photographic experience that can be intensely individual , sometimes even painful’

Paradoxically we ‘can’t live without ‘ our boring photographs , objects that can make us ‘both laugh and cry’ . Therefore Batchen remarks any academic research of snapshot photography means ‘ having to consider the snapshot photograph as both a complex social device and a personal talisman , rather than simply as a static art object’ ( p.g 133) .

The photographs below are included in the body of the essay , ordinary family snapshots that belong to an approximately 500 strong collection donated by art dealer and gallery owner Frank Maresca to Newark Museum.

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Batchen points out the shared characteristics.

– Taken by family or friends with the sole purpose of making a keepsake using a non-professional camera
– They contain a blend of comedy ‘and unrehearsed intimacy with a formality borrowed from a professional studio tradition’ (p.g 133)
– Subject , mainly always a person , usually looks straight into the camera and is centrally framed ‘well aware that they are posing for posterity’s sake’ (p.g 133)

Despite their anonymity and because ‘this is an experience we have all shared ‘(p.g 133) we are able to visualise the sequence of events leading to the taking of the photograph. Batchen points out earlier in the essay that despite the comparability between the conventional snapshots there are noticeable but modest differences. They are indistinguishable but at the same time distinct or as Batchen succinctly describes them they are ‘odes to conformist individualism ‘ (p.g 133)

The Maresca Collection see Here includes images that have been damaged , creased or showing signs of wear and tear , a reminder the snapshots have been ‘regularly touched by their original owners’ (p.g 134) . They could possibly be easily reproduced yet are quite individual and frequently placed in albums , which are ‘ a vehicle for storytelling, often conveying a bio-epic starring the maker of the album’ (p.g 135). Idealised narratives are told , it is rare for hostilities or sad moments to be included . Snapshots are frequently seen out of context in art publications but Batchen believes ‘the relationship of one photograph to the next is a crucial element’ (p.g 135) , one needed to compile a theoretical knowledge of vernacular photography.

Photographs are not only physical objects they also trigger speech, ‘the subjects of these snapshots were once named aloud , talked over , jokes about , libelled and ridiculed , reinterpreted and contested in oral exchange. Snapshots were rarely contemplated in respectful silence and nor should they be now’ (p.g 135).However time passes and Batchen ponders ‘what is a snapshot when it has been rendered mute…..we are left with only its husk , with just the prompt itself ?’ (p.g 135) , what can be revealed and what do they tell us? Personal and family photographs are amongst our most treasured possessions , ‘often said to be the thing we would rescue from a burning building’ (p.g 136 ) . Yet as Batchen rightly comments they are seldom glanced at and ‘almost always framed by inventive reminiscence and mixed emotions’ (p.g 136) . Paradoxically although we have a need to posses them it is not imperative that they be looked at. I very rarely get my boxes of family photographs out of the cupboards where they spend most of the time , out of sight but not forgotten , I would be devastated if they were destroyed.

Batchen discusses Pierre Bordeau’s sociological research into family photography.
Bourdieu notes the following

– Family snapshots are taken with a variety of cameras
– The images taken by each individual camera can be diverse

Bourdieu picks out the fundamental trait of our affinity with snapshots , which he likens to ‘fetish objects’ (p.g 136). ‘What makes a snapshot a snapshot is its function , not its pictorial qualities’, its purpose ‘is determined by the network of social relationships of which it is part’ (p.g 135). They have the ability to reincarnate our ancestors.

Nb. From some earlier notes/reading:David Bate :The Memory of Photography
Bourdieu considered ‘to photograph one’s children is to make oneself the historiographer of their childhood , and to create for them, as a sort of inheritance the image of what they have been….The family album expresses the truth of social remembrance’ But importantly Bate reminds the reader “the point of view of such family archives is not neutral ” ( Bate p.g 246-8).

‘The irony is that we take photographs in order to deny the possibility of death , to stop time in its tracks and us with it. But that very same photograph , by placing us indisputably in the past , is ;itself a kind of mini-death sentence , a prediction of our ultimate demise at some future time. It certifies times past and time’s inevitable passing ‘ (p.g 136) . Roland Barthes explores his emotional response to his mother’s death in the book Camera Lucida and Batchen points out that ‘this influential essay -part autobiographical novel , part philosophical rumination -is also an account of photography in which the snapshot experience is , for once , given a central role. The book which Batchen describes as containing prudently chosen pictures and a non-chronoligcal complex format ‘ offers an historical view of photography that is deliberately structured like a photograph. In short , the book seeks to tell us certain things about photography by itself becoming photographic , by giving us a specifically photographic experience ‘ (p.g 136).

But it’s how Barthes chooses to talk about this experience that is worth noting, because as Batchen points out ’emphasising with the grief stricken author , we find ourselves crying over a photograph that isn’t even there’ ( Batchen , 2013, p.g 43) . The empty space allows the reader to substitute the missing image with ‘their own snapshot of a loved one’ (p.g 137) . Barthes , unlike the alternative snapshot histories Batchen discusses , requires ‘that we do that work for him in our mind’s eye’ (p.g 137) .

Batchen concludes that successful study of the snapshot is not attainable using conventional art history research techniques. He considers the use of Camera Lucida to be a plausible alternative model to follow , one that uses ‘ a back and forth between whatever orphaned examples of snapshot culture we encounter in the world and our own prized photographic reliquaries , between cliche and sublimity , sameness and difference , truth and fiction , public and private , infinity and zero , without letting either term ever rest on its laurels’ (p.g 137) . The variable and inconsistent qualities of snapshots need to be considered in order to write a rational history about them as a genre of photography.

References / Bibliography

Geoffrey Batchen
Published online 18 Sept 2008.
Geoffrey Batchen (2008) SNAPSHOTS, Photographies, 1:2, 121-142, DOI:10.1080/17540760802284398
Batchen , G.  (2013)  “The Great Unknown” . In Burbridge , B & Davies , C (eds.) Issue 20  Family Politics , Photoworks Annual . Brighton England , pp. 42-47.
David Bate (2010) The Memory of Photography, Photographies, 3:2, 243-257, DOI:10.1080/17540763.2010.499609

2 thoughts on “Reading : Snapshots by Geoffrey Batchen

  1. Catherine

    Very interesting to read Judy with some useful links. There is snobbery around ‘snapshots’ which is odd when they are so important to people yet there’s now a growth of theory around ‘selfies’. What’s the difference I wonder?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Judy Bach Post author

    Thanks Catherine , it was a very thought provoking article to read. Interesting point you make too about ‘selfies’ (how I hate that word!) –I must look at some of the theories surrounding these.



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