Snapshots vs The Snapshot Aesthetic

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Snapshots vs The Snapshot Aesthetic

Post by Nando on Mon Jun 09, 2008 10:14 pm

I saw a comment on another local website concerning "snapshots". The point made was that "snapshots" are just as important as any other photographs. A reference to the "Snapshot Aesthetic" movement in fine art photography was made to back up this claim. Ok, so now we're talking about "snapshots" in the realm of fine art photography. In this area of photography, I think the notion of "snapshots" being as important as anything else is wrong.

In 1952, Henri Cartier-Bresson published his landmark photography book "Images la sauvette". The title of the book translates to "Images on the run" in English. However, the English-language publishers decided to call English version of the book "The Decisive Moment" instead. Based largely on this title, an impression was eventually established that HCB possessed the invisibility and silence of a ninja, that he could see at 1/500th of a second and that he was able to get the perfect photograph with just a single shot every time... and shoot with the grace of ballet dancer on top of that. As a result, many photographers that looked up to HCB spent countless hours and endless effort looking for "decisive moments". I was one of them. However, when one examines HCB's contact sheets, it becomes apparent that he did not shoot in this manner. He would say oui, oui, oui a few times before saying OUI!!! Henri Cartier-Bresson himself was bothered by this "Decisive Moment" label put on his photographs.

Names and labels can be misleading. This leads us to "snapshots" and "The Snapshot Aesthetic" movement in photography.

The word "snapshot" used to refer to photographs taken quickly or with a quick exposure time. The emphasis was on speed in much the same way as a snapshot in hockey or a snapshot of the rifle. Now, the most common use of this term in photography, is a personal, photographic recording of something with NO thought or intent for visual expression, commercial use or for honing photographic skills. It is just a personal recording and nothing more than a personal recording. The photographic recording is of no significant to anybody except for the photographer and perhaps a few people with a direct attachment to the photographer or the subject.

The Snapshot Aesthetic is a name for a movement in fine art photography. It puts emphasis on intimacy and spontaneity. It shines the light, often not on the subject in the photograph, but on the photographer in an autobiographical sense and also plays on the reaction of the viewer. And indeed, many photographers purposely looked to old family "snapshots" for direction on how to achieve intimacy, spontaneity, and autobiography. Because of these characteristics, many found that these types of photographs mimic the look of family "snapshots". Hence the name. The key thing is that there is a real, DELIBERATE INTENT by the photographer for visual expression. "Snapshot Aesthetic" photographs that may look like a thoughtless photographic recordings are actuality, in most cases, intricately composed, carefully exposed, and presented in a purposeful manner. In other words, photographs made in the "Snapshot Aesthetic" style are not "snapshots". So therefore, one cannot use this art movement to justify the importance of "snapshots" in fine art photography. Further, all art is deliberate. Art is not created by chance.

Let's take William Eggleston as an example. He is probably the photographer most associated with this movement, credited with bringing artistic merit to colour photography and his name was brought up. If one watches the documentary "William Eggleston in The Real World," one can see how carefully and deliberately he shoots. How he analyzes and looks at the subject from all different angles. How he revisits locations more than once. It is also impossible not to notice the huge Mamiya 23 press camera that he was using. No "green mode" on that camera. In fact, no modes at all - its a completely manual camera with no light-meter so it takes some basic knowledge of photographic principles just to operate that thing. Putting up with the chore of carrying and using that huge 6x9 medium-format camera probably meant that he put some thought into print quality. Eggleston also did not title or describe any of his Los Alamo photographs when exhibiting them, for example. This forced the viewer into viewing and make sense of the world through the photographers own eyes. This user experience was deliberately planned and somewhat controlled. The reaction of the viewers was an important part of the work.

To imply that photographers like Nan Goldin, William Eggleston, Martin Parr, and Diane Arbus were just taking "snapshots" or that "snapshots" can be just as good as their photographs is absolutely absurd, quite disrespectful and degrading. A "snapshot" shooter may have a few good photos taken by chance. The above photographers make (or made) great photos consistently and have bodies of work that can only be rivalled by the best. They worked hard and sometimes suffered to expand the language of art.

I would very much welcome a discussion or debate about this.

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