I went to The Museum of Modern Art recently to check out some of the new photography exhibitions. In addition to the stark repetition the Bechers’ work and some of my favorites from Diane Arbus there was a wonderful exhibition of vernacular photography. The snapshots by anonymous photographers all depict the shadow of the photographer. The photos are hung salon style with a variety of different frames, bringing to mind a Victorian parlor or a page taken from a vintage photo album. Seeing all these photographs together also made me think of one of the downsides of the advent of digital photography: mistakes like these are now easily and instantly deleted.
Keep your back to the sun. This is one of the basic rules of photography for obvious reasons. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your view of these things) this often led to the photographer inadvertently placing himself, or to be more specific, his shadow, into the picture. Sometimes it is apparent that this was intentional, with the photographer having a little creative fun by finding a way of inserting himself into the photograph while remaining behind the camera. The majority of the time though the shadow is unintentional, with the photographer concentrating on the subject in the view finder and not noticing the dark shape until after the prints were made. It’s kind of ironic, focusing on the subject and getting results that make the intended subject secondary. The shadow becomes the center of attention. The shadow becomes what the photograph is about. We no longer have a photograph of Sally playing in her own yard. We have a photograph of Sally being approached by a stranger in her own yard. The shadow of the photographer changes what is happening in the photograph. The results can be playful and lighthearted or an ominous and disconcerting dialogue between the subject and the unknown.
100 Shadows, an exhibition of anonymous photographs all depicting the shadow of the photographer, will be on display in the lobby of Jefferson Market through October.
See below for books on vernacular photography.
Book of Shadows / Jeffrey Fraenkel
American Photobooth / Nakki Goranin
Photobooth / Babbette Hines
Prairie Fires and Paper Moons : the American Photographic Postcard, 1900-1920 / Hal Morgan and Andreas Brown ; foreword by John Baskin
Snapshot Chronicles : Inventing the American Photo Album / Barbara Levine, curator ; Stephanie Snyder, director and chief curator
The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978 : from the collection of Robert E. Jackson / Sarah Greenough and Diane Waggoner ; with Sarah Kennel and Matthew S. Witkovsky
Other Pictures : Anonymous Photographs from the Thomas Walther collection / essay by Mia Fineman