In these days of living in isolation because of the COVID-19 virus, one may look to masterpieces of art for solace and aesthetic elevation. Yet the humble photographic snapshot may also provide unexpected moments of reverie—both entertaining and thought-provoking. With their intimate feel, they open doors to the private spaces that many of us find ourselves occupying now.
A recent gift to the Museum from collectors John and Teenuh Foster provides a treasure trove of compelling images taken by amateur photographers in the last century. Selections from this gift were featured in the 2019 exhibition Poetics of the Everyday: Amateur Photography, 1890–1970. At times somber and inward-looking, exuberant and humorous, they attest to a perpetual desire to creatively document our daily lives. As many of these images were made during earlier periods of duress, such as the Great Depression, they speak to an enduring spirit of curiosity.
Some of these images are precursors to our present-day smartphone selfies, where one is both the subject and the picture taker. An image of a woman in California in the 1950s reveals a novel early attempt, tying a string to her camera’s shutter release to take a picture of herself on her front porch.
For another self-portrait, a young man in his spare bedroom carefully framed himself in the small mirror propped on the dresser. The print is so diminutive—only a few inches square—and the man’s reflected visage even smaller, making this quiet assertion of his presence all the more affecting.
Recently we’ve seen an increasing number of photographers working in urban centers which have largely been emptied because of the virus. They can be surreal in their absence of activity. Many images in the Foster gift resonate with this aspect of the present moment, inviting a slower more meditative sense of looking at our environments.
For example, a view taken from a tall building finds a certain abstract beauty in the geometric outlines of the roofs and sidewalks below. With the lack of people on the street, it provides a new perspective on the built landscape.
Photographers have also looked close to home and at the details of domestic locales. An eerie picture taken of a suburban sidewalk at night reveals a hopscotch design. Absent the playing children who drew it, the chalk diagram becomes a kind of mysterious hieroglyph. The open-endedness of these images may lend themselves to our own interpretation and imaginative projection.
Perhaps most important, amateur photographs can reflect a spirit of levity and playfulness. With their fast film speeds, the portable cameras that became ubiquitous in the 20th century captured fleeting, unpretentious gestures. For example, a picture shows a lone young girl impulsively putting her hands over her eyes. One senses her glee at the presence of the camera, while her raised elbows and the flair of her summer dress create an intriguing contour—still and symmetrical.
By contrast, a photograph of a man, perhaps at a family Thanksgiving dinner, is anything but still. He is caught in the unrestrained throes of laughter, his hands thrown up and his head canted backward. The photographer’s thumb over the lens inadvertently adds more chaotic energy to the scene.
Our Furry Friends
Animals have long been favored subjects of photography. In one instance, we see a figure posed with three pet rabbits—the last one so small it barely registers as a white ball.The boy’s head and shoulders were cropped out of the frame. Yet, the figure was made whole by the addition of a likeness carefully snipped from another print but one of a comically disproportionate scale.
Some images of animals have relied on the element of chance, attempting to capture high-spirited antics. In one remarkable example, a dog bounds from a cornfield over a fence directly toward the photographer. Frozen in the moment, the dog’s streamlined body and the elegant flip of its ears are wondrous.
Other images attempt to pose their subjects, though the results are no less surprising. An early picture (its circular format a product of the first Kodak Brownie camera) portrays a cat creeping forward through a snowy path in front of a house. The camera is at eye level with the cat to dramatic effect; its front paw practically comes out of the picture frame. While taken more than a 130 years ago, this image has not lost any of its capacity to delight. Hopefully, it can inspire us to find similar moments of lightheartedness and enchantment in the details of our presently cloistered lives.