Finding New Value in the Work of Anonymous Shutterbugs | Modern Society of USA

Finding New Value in the Work of Anonymous Shutterbugs

Finding New Value in the Work of Anonymous Shutterbugs

A woman in a tree. Water skiers. Factory machinery. An army officer. Niagara Falls. A séance. A disobedient dog. Nine nuns … The subjects are almost limitless.

This is the myriad realm of “vernacular photography,” the catchall term for snapshots that amateurs have been taking since 1888, when George Eastman introduced the first hand-held Kodak camera, priced at $25 (about $600 today). Billions of images have been created since then, but only in recent years have amateurs’ contributions begun to be comprehensively assessed as both collectibles and cultural artifacts.

“I look at these images as social history, personal archives,” said Artur Walther, one of the world’s leading photography collectors, who has private museums devoted to the medium in New York and in Neu-Ulm, Germany. His New York space is currently presenting the exhibition “Scrapbook Love Story: Memory and the Vernacular Photo Album,” focusing on albums and scrapbooks from the 1890s to the 1970s.

Mr. Walther said his collection, rich in holdings of works by African and Chinese artists as well as Western classics, has concentrated on vernacular photography for the last five years, amassing more than 20,000 images. “All of us have these, and some are very unique,” he added.

Daile Kaplan, director of the photography department at Swann, said there had been a broad reassessment of amateur photography over the last 10 years. “It was a specialized market, but now contemporary art collectors and artists have got involved,” she said. “People are coming to the genre with the expectation that there are fresh discoveries to be made,” she added. “There’s more interest in the idea of images, of what the image means to me personally, rather than just a name or brand of artist.”

People engage with old amateur photographs for different reasons. Scholars value them for revealing the hidden realities of social and political history. Collectors admire their visual originality, and — at the more obsessive end of the collecting spectrum — the opportunities they afford to accumulate images of a specific subject.

Thanks to digital cameras and social media, amateurs are now taking and sharing more photographs than at any time in history. But these images are rarely printed. Exhibitions of vernacular photography tend to have a cutoff date in the 1970s or ‘80s.

Has photography lost something now that hardly anyone uses film? Ms. Fineman doesn’t think so. “We are living in a golden age of photography,” she said. “Digital technology has only amplified the power of photography as an ‘everyday’ art form.”

Image-hosting websites such as Instagram or Flickr are, after all, digital photo albums. And they are faster and cheaper to create than in the days of processing film.

“My main concern about the digital turn in vernacular photography has to do with the difficulty of preserving and archiving these images for future generations,” said Ms. Fineman. “Tossing a handful of snapshots in a shoe box is a lot easier.”

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