Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 26, 2014
Catherine Zuromskis Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. 264 pp.; 77 b/w ills. Cloth $34.95 (9780262019293)

Selfies, Instagram feeds, photo tagging: whatever value we may have once placed on the privacy of our photographs seems gone forever. The incorporation of digital cameras into cell phones has created this condition, launching us into a post-camera, post-print era where we press the button and a messaging service does the rest. The “rest” is to render instantly our private moments into public documents that can be neither reversed nor regulated. As many critics of new media have proclaimed, it is the end of photography as we once practiced it and the end of privacy as we once felt it.

This is a time when we need to reflect more than ever on the meanings of images—and when we are probably reflecting less than ever, too busy taking photos to be thinking about them. The exception are those photographers, curators, and scholars who have been writing thoughtfully about snapshots over the past decade or so, generating a substantial body of criticism as we cross the threshold into a brave, new world of photography. Among the most recent of these studies is Catherine Zuromskis’s Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images. Zuromskis considers the public dimensions of snapshots within American culture, exploring what they mean to Americans not only personally but also socially, culturally, and politically. How does a snapshot’s meaning change once it enters a public space like a museum? In what ways have snapshots, those most homey of photographs, always been public in nature? How have certain American artists demonstrated unique ways of going “public” with snapshots? These timely questions run across the five chapters of Zuromskis’s book.

Snapshot Photography opens by rehearsing some of the snapshot’s most compelling characteristics as a genre of vernacular photography. The introduction argues that the genre is highly visible yet under-theorized; that it functions as photography’s repressed other, more prolific than related genres and yet resistant to, and deemed unworthy of, critical attention; and that it possesses multiple identities, from souvenirs of past events and cherished traces of absent loved ones to certifiable proof that someone or something existed. How, Zuromskis asks, do we write about an object so seemingly banal yet so multifaceted? How do we make sense of a body of work that cannot be easily anchored (the way other photographic genres can be) by aesthetics, politics, or history? Her answer: by considering what she calls the “social lives” of snapshots. “Social life” has become a popular concept ascribed to such diverse subjects of study as opium, coffee, and forests, ever since the seminal collection of essays, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, came out in 1986 (Arjun Appadurai, ed., Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press). Like these other studies, Zuromskis’s book looks at how objects—in this case, snapshots—have been used and traded in a variety of social and cultural settings, blending social history and cultural anthropology with her own disciplinary specialty, art history.

Spanning from 1955 to the end of the twentieth century, and covering such work as Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man exhibition and Andy Warhol’s Photobooth portraits, Zuromskis’s study attempts to trace the social lives of certain clusters of snapshots. She seeks to move beyond an analysis of individual images to their means of production, dissemination, and consumption, hoping to “engage the messiness, the real-life particularities and contradictions that roil beneath the surface of a genre that often seems too banal to merit scholarly consideration at all” (11). If anything has a tumultuous social life, it is a snapshot. Old ones have moved from the safe space of family albums to the jumble of flea markets; recent ones zip daily from cell phones to the socially overwrought spaces of Twitter and Facebook. Zuromskis’s promise of a “messy” approach to snapshots thus could not be more welcomed in twenty-first-century visual culture.

Chapter 1 explores the snapshot genre’s most entrenched conventions. Contrary to what most amateur photographers like to think, snapshots have long been culturally inscribed, their form and content determined before anyone presses the button. And more often than not, the content privileges heterosexual, white, middle-class families with children, creating an archive that is staggering in its sameness. It records what Zuromskis calls “aspirational fictions”: the happy family, blissful couple, perfect home, ideal vacation. To record anything else in a snapshot—two men kissing, for example—still strikes most Americans as somehow deviant. The myth of snapshot photography’s “innocence” unravels before the reader in the opening chapter, preparing her or him for a trenchant book that, as Zuromskis states, will seek out attempts to use snapshot photography “against the grain” (111).

But what follows is a limited—and limiting—series of case studies. Chapter 2, “Icons of Intimacy and Portraits of Perversity,” examines the representation of snapshots within the popular media of film and television. Zuromskis offers a detailed meditation on the 2002 film One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams, and on its exploration of snapshot photography’s affirmative (and fictitious) construction of American family life. With episodes from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, moreover, she studies how the most innocuous of snapshots assume diabolical meaning when they are placed within contemporary American narratives of sexual abuse and other crimes against children. While it is gratifying to see smart productions like One Hour Photo and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit receive such careful, critical attention, Zuromskis’s protracted focus on these isolated representations makes the chapter feel insular. Had she located her discussions within the context of actual, criminal uses of snapshots—such as the recent example in the news of a jilted teenage boy who sought revenge by posting snapshots of his naked ex-girlfriend on Facebook—the chapter would have been timelier and reflective of a deeper engagement with historical and social phenomena.

Chapter 3, “‘Ordinary Pictures’ in the Modern Art Museum,” takes a look at what happens when the quotidian snapshot makes its way into such formidable spaces in the United States as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles; and the International Center of Photography in New York City. While they mark a high moment in the social lives of snapshots, the exhibitions that these institutions have mounted in recent years have all tended to take an “abstractly sentimental and overtly aestheticized” approach to snapshot photography (120), insisting on both its status as art and its supposed naiveté. Elegantly matted and framed, fetishized for their lack of a narrative context, these snapshots were all inevitably stripped of their social relevance by the aestheticizing force of art-museum culture.

The final two chapters provide a poignant and comprehensive overview of two American “snapshot artists” whose careers have been given to us previously in bits and pieces. Chapter 4, “Andy Warhol’s Snapshots: From the Factory to America,” explores how Warhol used the tradition of snapshot photography to memorialize drag queens, drug culture, and graphic sex acts, appropriating a genre defined by rigid conventionality and vague notions of “innocence” to portray sexual and other personal freedoms. Chapter 5 turns to Warhol’s contemporary Nan Goldin and the “limits of photographic possibility.” Like Warhol, Goldin cultivated a prolific approach to snapshot photography, spending her entire career taking photos of herself, her friends, family, and community. Many of these images, like Warhol’s, explore subaltern environments and “deviant” sexual behaviors.

Snapshot Photography is tightly organized, maintaining Zuromskis’s thesis that the photographic medium and the snapshot genre in particular constitute a powerful ideological force in modern American culture. The book demonstrates the author’s talent for close reading of images as well as her deep appreciation of certain photographic artists. But given her promise to explore the “messiness” of the snapshot, Zuromskis’s use of isolated case studies and her often lengthy attention to individual snapshots seem misguided. As valuable as case studies can be, unless they are situated within a highly textured and inclusive discussion, they have the effect of restraining the larger, rampageous project of which they are a part.

It would have served the book far better, for example, to put Warhol’s and Goldin’s snapshots in circulation with amateur snapshots from the 1960s and 1970s that record “deviant” sex acts, or to view them alongside the work of other, lesser-known photographers such as Crawford Barton or Bob Mizer. Similarly, the book would have profited by studying other snapshot exhibitions in recent years, such as The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978, held at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in 2008, or Now Is Then: Snapshots from the Maresca Collection at the Newark Museum in 2008.

Moreover, Zuromskis’s decision to focus on American culture is vaguely articulated, leaving the reader to wonder about the larger, national implications of her study. To focus on American culture—with its notorious fetishizing of celebrity culture, its obsessions with reality TV, its supposed lack of media boundaries—makes perfect sense for this project. And yet, Zuromskis does not do nearly enough with the character of the culture she chronicles. There is no discussion, for example, of such recent happenings as “selfies” or Facebook profiles, no treatment of how the iPhone, with its twin ability to take stunningly high-quality and innumerable images, has forever changed our social expectations of snapshot photography.

Finally, Snapshot Photography seems oddly obsolete, lacking any significant references to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like. Given the recent explosion of these phenomena, the snapshot’s public status is more open for critical investigation than ever. And yet, within the pages of Snapshot Photography, it is as if none of them exist. What of the extraordinary congeries of snapshots now available on websites? Online collections like Pinterest offer a surprisingly vast archive of “deviant” snapshots that would have enriched and complicated Zuromskis’s discussion. The absence of such material makes Snapshot Photography, for all its strengths, a missed opportunity. Certainly, it opens up the possibility for another book to explore the radically transformed, utterly chaotic, social lives of snapshots over the last decade.

Nancy West
Department of English and Honors College, University of Missouri