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Snapshot Photography

snapshots photographers camera kodak

Snapshots are defined as casual pictures made with hand-held cameras by amateurs. Most of the billions of photographs made each year by other-than-professional photographers are snapshots. In the hands of artists, a snapshot style has developed that mimics such things as careless framing, harsh flash lighting, tilted horizons, and fuzziness. The term snapshot was coined in 1860 by Sir John Herschel, who saw the aiming and quick snapping of the camera shutter as analogous to the quick aim and snap of a gun trigger used in hunting. Although Herschel envisioned pictures being made quickly at the snap of the camera shutter as early as 1860, snapshot photography did not really come into existence for another 20 years. This was the result of increased film speeds and hand-held cameras, which made it possible to capture both the moment and the movement.

Not long after the beginning of photography, the snapshot’s ability to capture the fleeting moment along with its often unplanned composition began to interest painters searching for new ways of expression. Some painters used photography to record fleeting expressions of their models and then used the photographs to create their paintings. Many of the paintings by Edgar Degas (1834–1917), such as his horseracing series and his ballerina series, suggest a snapshot vision. One of his paintings, The Glass of Absinthe , painted in 1876, shows a forlorn-looking couple sitting at a table in a brasserie, staring into space. The art historian H.W. Janson, in his book History of Art , wrote, “The design of this picture, at first glance, seems as unstudied as a snapshot …”

In 1888, George Eastman introduced the No. 1 Kodak camera, a light, portable camera priced at $25 and loaded with enough film for 100 exposures. Kodak marketed this camera with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest.” Customers returned the film to Rochester, New York for processing and printing. This innovation is seen as the beginning of the photo finishing and marketing industry, which now processes and prints billions of snapshots each year.

Snapshots democratized photography by making it simpler and more accessible to the masses as the years progressed. Taking pictures of friends, relatives, travel, and important events and rituals such as births, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, confirmations, graduations, and marriages provided a visual diary for families.

In the early 1900s, snapshots and those who took them began to be looked down upon by professional photographers and those who aspired to be art photographers because the composition and technical quality were, in their view, lacking. This did not deter the growing number of snapshot photographers, and with the advent of the 35mm Leica camera, introduced in the United States in 1928 by Willard Morgan, snapshot photography took another leap forward. With his wife, Barbara, Morgan toured the country taking snapshots to promote the use of the Leica camera to both photojournalists and interested amateurs. Along with lecturing to camera clubs, he published a number of his snapshots in magazines to accompany articles on how to photograph with a 35mm Leica camera. In 1932 he founded the “Circle of Confusion” in New York City, a camera club consisting of anyone interested in 35mm snapshot photography. In 1943, as the first director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, he arranged an extensive snapshot exhibition. Not only was it unprecedented for its time, but the exhibition was also one of the best attended and, as might be expected, received a fair amount of criticism.

Although snapshot photography was embraced by many, it was rejected by others. This attitude reversed when other serious photographers began to embrace it as a unique way of expression that was not simply mimicking painting and its associated compositional rules. Snapshots were immediate and unpretentious, capturing and freezing a moment in time. A number of photographers and painters worldwide began to use what later came to be called the snapshot aesthetic.

In the early 1900s, Alexander Rodchenko made images with unconventional viewpoints, tilted components, and unusual compositions. André Kertész began photographing informal, spontaneous, everyday human activities. Henri Cartier-Bres-son’s photographs, which captured the “decisive moment,” influenced photographers like Bruce Davidson, who worked in a snapshot genre. Walker Evans began exploring both documentary and snapshot photography in the early 1930s. In the 1950s, the Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank came to America and photographed various events with a snapshot style. His work was published in a book that was initially severely criticized, eventually becoming a treasured classic. The Americans , now a collectors’ item, has been reprinted a number of times.

In the 1960s the snapshot aesthetic blossomed with the work of two magazine photographers, Gary Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. Both influenced other serious photographers with the unexplored possibilities inherent in snapshot styles. The movement was further advanced by the lectures and writings of John Szarkowski, then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Photographers continue to explore the snapshot aesthetic, giving photography a unique look that does not mimic other forms of imaging. These include Joel Meyerowitz, who began working in the 1970s; Nicholas Nixon; and Bruce Davidson, with his snapshot series of people riding the New York subway in the 1980s. Also in the 1980s, many photographers were playing with a soft-focus, fuzzy, early-snapshot look by using cheap cameras with cheap plastic lenses.

The Eastman Kodak company sponsors a major snapshot photography contest each year called KINSA (Kodak International Newspaper Snapshot Awards). The contest, which is sponsored by about 200 newspapers in the United States, Canada, and Mexico and coordinated by Kodak, began in 1934. Snapshots are solicited by newspapers. An estimated total of around half a million prints are submitted to the participating newspapers. Each newspaper has local judges rate the snapshots and then send their selections to Kodak. Kodak receives about 1200 snapshots from the participating newspapers. A panel of judges selects about 200 winners who receive various awards and are further honored by having their photographs on exhibition for one year in the “Journey Into Imagination Pavilion” presented by the Eastman Kodak Company at the Walt Disney World Epcot Center.

A similar journey began nearly 100 years ago when, in 1901, a seven-year-old French boy, Jacques Henri Lartigue, was given a camera by his father and began to take pictures. He was captivated by the experience and wrote in his diary that “Photography is a magic thing.” And indeed it was, as his 70 years of snapshot photography reveals. “He photographed spirited games at his family’s country house, excursions in his father’s first automobiles, trips to racetracks and seaside resorts, elegant women strolling the Bois de Boulogne, his own honeymoon, and the ceaseless antics of his friends and relatives …” (Lartigue, Jacques, Henri, Diary of a Century ).

In the Afterword of Lartigue’s book, which is a select sampling of his personal visual diary, Richard Avedon wrote: “High-speed film was available since the turn of the century but for years it was only used in sports photography … as if there were some tacit agreement among photographers to remain within the provinces of painting in the hope of assuring their positions as artists. I think Jacques Henri Lartigue is the most deceptively simple and penetrating photographer in the short … embarrassing history of that so-called art. While his predecessors and contemporaries were creating and serving traditions, he did what no photographer had done before or since. He photographed his own life. It was as if he knew instinctively and from the very beginning that the real secrets lay in small things. And it was a kind of wisdom—so much deeper than training and so often perverted by it—that was never lost…. He was an amateur … never burdened by ambition or the need to be a serious person.”

The snapshot aesthetic so brilliantly pioneered and displayed in Lartigue’s 70 years of photography continues today, and some museums, recognizing the importance of snapshot photography, have been collecting family albums. Just imagine for a moment how our view of the Second World War might change if we had access to all of the snapshots made by our military personnel at that time—or our view of the Great Depression if snapshots had been taken during the Farm Security Administration (FSA) by all the poor farmers and migrant workers who were photographed by photographers hired by the FSA.

Scholars from various disciplines now use snapshots and extend their research. They belong to such organizations as The International Society for Visual Sociology, The International Visual Literacy Association, and the Society for Visual Anthropology. People with vision, like Jack Debes of the Eastman Kodak Company, realizing the importance of pictorial information back in the late 1960s, began a movement called “Visual Literacy” to encourage the education of students in reading pictures. Cameras and film were provided to students, who took snapshots of things that interested them and later discussed them in classroom settings. Students also learned how to take and organize a series of photographs to create a short narrative. Prepared photographs that formed a narrative were shuffled and given to students to rearrange, a way for them to learn how photographs relate to one another in a narrative form and for the teacher to observe students’ visual thinking.

The profound importance of snapshots has not yet been fully realized. Snapshots are not only an honest visual record of events historical and contemporary, but also a quiet movement that has influenced all forms of image making including painting, motion pictures, and television. Snapshot photography has had not only a strong influence on documentary and fine-art photography, but has also been a source of a multimillion dollar industry—photofinishing and marketing. With billions of snapshots made each year using film and digital cameras, there is a great and continuing demand for processing and printing, and of course all the equipment needed for this activity, including mini-lab printing for both analog and digital output.

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