The Snapshot Aesthetic
When OMT first picked up a camera with serious intent, back in the very late 1970s, he quickly discovered the work of Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand. It was a revelation. Good photography had nothing to do with the textbooks. It wasn’t bound by strict rules of composition and a great image could be domestic and banal. Even better, he didn’t have to learn tedious lighting and darkroom techniques. The important thing was to respond to a scene, preferably with irony or aloofness. The end result for our budding snapper was about two years worth of utterly boring photographs and a lesson learned too slowly. The apparently casual regard for rules of composition by photographers in the 1960s belied a deliberate, studied approach. As so many gunslingers discovered too late, shooting from the hip takes practice and Friedlander’s haphazard compositions were never as accidental as they first appeared. To be artless is easy but to appear that way takes effort.
Whether they wanted to be or not, Friedlander, Arbus and Winogrand were associated with the last formally declared art movement of straight photography. Given several names, the most resilient is the ‘snapshot aesthetic’. It followed certain, traditional laws of art movements in that it returned to old values while subverting them, in this case, amateur snapshots. That at least was the thinking behind the ‘New Documents’ show at the MOMA in 1967. None of the photographers exhibited seems to have disputed the association with snapshots though they would have insisted that their work was more considered. It had a point.
The snapshot aesthetic occupied a non-state. Emotions were at best enigmatic, the subjects ideally caught, to quote Lou Reed, between thought and expression. Their actions were unresolved and they looked out of place in their environment. The viewer meanwhile was not always certain of where to look. Roland Barthes’ punctum wasn’t always evident, or if it was it was the wrong detail.
The photos in this week’s gallery anticipated the snapshot aesthetic. They were, with one exception, taken in Turkey, during the 1940s and 50s but they share some of the uncertainty and misplaced tension in Friedlander and Arbus’ photographs. The similarity is usually coincidental though in a few it appears the photographer attempted something and fell short, accidentally leaving us a glimpse of the future. Such serendipity reinforces one of the fundamental elements of photography. It isn’t that anyone can take a good photograph (true enough) but we can all take photographs that suddenly reveal mysterious symmetries and hidden contexts. We can’t all be artists but we can be poets.
View the gallery here