Post Road Magazine #16

Tiny Monuments: A Look at Snapshot Photography - by Hannah Lifson

For the past year I have been organizing one man’s private collection of snapshots. When I find time, I work out of his apartment, where I sit for hours and pore through piles of dusty, sometimes ripped, warped, curled, and cracked snapshots, sorting them into categories with names like “Women in Furs,” “Men on Poles and in Trees,” “The Ends” (this means people shot from behind), “Double Exposures,” “Action Shots,” “Knowing Looks,” “Nudes,” and many more, determined by both the content and the mood of each snapshot. I then place the snapshots in clear plastic baseball card holders and store them in red cardboard boxes from IKEA. I would estimate the collection, conservatively, at ten thousand snapshots.

From the moment I began this project of organizing snapshots, I felt inspired to write about them.

Among other things, the collector’s taste tends toward, in his words, the “Magritte-like happy accident” snapshots—photographs where something unexpected happened, either in the taking or in the developing process. The result, almost always unintended by the snapshooter (or photographer), often has elements of the miraculous, magical, even the occult. As anyone who has ever picked up a camera knows, things don’t always turn out the way we expect them to. I have found in this collection, for example, dozens of snapshots in which everything is in focus except one person’s face, obscured entirely in a blurry mess. Some are chemical accidents; some incidental, particular to the moment captured. Or maybe an unexpected object, person, or light entered the frame at the very moment when the shutter opened and closed. In the best of these snapshots the end result is a thrilling mistake, like a fortuitous splatter on the canvas, a drop in the developer, a misplaced stitch. These accident shots take on a modernist quality, in that they “make strange” the ordinary. Often discarded by their owners for their muddled images—in other words, their inability to describe their intended subject clearly—“mistake” photographs are accidental hymns to the unpredictability of life itself.

In addition to these mistake shots, the snapshots in this collection are full of compassion; the pictures, often lyrical, illustrate the moments that make up a life. Within the broader categories I have noticed a large number of what I call “People at Play” snapshots: a man sticking out his tongue; a woman hiking up her skirt suggestively; a group arranged in a humorous, acrobatic feat, such as the human pyramid or the old contortionist trick (one person sits on another’s legs in such a way as to make two people appear as one smaller person with a small torso and big feet). Like still images of slapstick comedy, these pictures make us smile as we imagine the laughter brewing in the performers’ and photographers’ chests. In this collection there are also moments of surprising tenderness—a kiss, an affectionate glance, a mother and her child—as well as strange, unsettling ones: a stern look; a stark, foreboding cloud hovering over a vast field; a lonely child. Mood, movement, tone, rendering, light, and edges are defining features in each and every snapshot.


The term snapshot generally implies a photograph taken by someone with no particular training or knowledge of photographic technique. If you look up snapshot in the dictionary, you will see that it is a term borrowed from hunting, originally meaning “to shoot without aiming.” When George Eastman invented the Kodak camera in 1888, soon followed by the Kodak Brownie in 1900, he marketed the handheld camera as an everyman’s tool—a relatively inexpensive piece of technology (the Brownie sold for $1.00) accessible to the so-called average American with little to no previous knowledge of the way photography works. As the well-known slogan went, “You press the button, we do the rest!” By removing the hold that studios and professional photographers had on the medium, Eastman directly influenced the way people photographed and, consequently, what photographs looked like.

It is nearly impossible for me to understand what it must have been like when photography was new (and available). Imagine the novelty of discovering you can capture and record what you see in front of you, and later return to it as a reminder of a specific time in your life: a friend’s wedding, a trip to the beach, a new car, a picnic in the park with your lover. This revelation speaks to our instinct to document our existence—to record, or mark, in some permanent way time on this earth. When Henri Cartier-Bresson first discovered the Leica camera, which gave him the mobility and ease of photographing on the move, he “prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life—to preserve life in the act of living.” (Note the hunting imagery in Cartier-Bresson’s statement: “prowled,” “ready to pounce,” “determined to ‘trap’ life.”) This ability to “[fix] forever the precise and transitory instant,” as Cartier-Bresson described it, is unique to photography as a medium, and common to all who take pictures, professional and amateur alike.1

Distinct from the realm of professional and commercial photography—photojournalism, advertising, fashion, art—snapshots are spontaneous, familiar, without pretense. Unlike early photography, which usually took place in a studio with considerable forethought and direction, snapshots appear casual and loose. Usually taken to commemorate certain moments and experiences in a person’s life, they possess the quality of having been made with little to no preparation. They are not intended for museum walls. (It is only in retrospect, as years passed and photography became an appreciated art form in and of itself, that snapshots have found their place on the walls of various art institutions.)2 Thus, snapshots can be risky, instantaneous, hectic, and even boring. We all know the difference between leafing through a friend’s family photo albums and attending an exhibition of photographs. Nevertheless, most of us possess an innate desire to document our travels, interactions, activities—what we consider meaningful, or simply emblematic, moments in our lives.


Since its arrival, eBay has transformed the market for snapshots, and collectibles in general. Before eBay, snapshot collecting was a physical, tactile, and personal process. One had to go to the flea market, seek the estate sale, visit the secondhand store, and contact a dealer. Once there, the collector touched the snapshots, turned them over, understood them as objects, not just pictures. Now sellers post their snapshots on eBay with such colorful item descriptions as “Three Boys Riding a White Lion—Snapshot—1944,” “1930s–—40s Photo Snapshot, Woman Pole Sitter,” and “1960s Vintage Photo Snapshot Drunken Man, Bottles.” A relatively small community, snapshot dealers and collectors know what sells and what doesn’t; they know that Linda in New Mexico loves snapshots of babies with puppies, that Isaac in New Jersey collects snapshots of people in costumes, and so on, and they try to advertise accordingly. My collector checks eBay on a regular basis, but it has not replaced his other methods of collecting. Some dealers he knows personally, while others he knows strictly as their eBay personalities and will probably never meet. A digital scan of a three-dimensional image is, at best, a close approximation of its actual state, so when the snapshots arrive, they are often met with a moment of surprise—sometimes pleasant, sometimes less so.

This said, snapshots are not merely family talismans, to be discarded or sold at an estate sale, at a flea market, or, most recently, on eBay. Snapshots are pictures that exist within a frame, chosen and composed by their photographer, inhabited by their subject matter. (The border of a snapshot is a hot topic within the world of collectors. One collector told me that when printers stopped developing snapshots with narrow white borders, they ceased to be “snapshots” and became “images.”) They are, at their best, small works of art by an artist we have come to know well: Photographer Unknown. Snapshots represent a collective creative outpouring. Perhaps more so than any other medium, they are our culture’s collective art form. A collection of snapshots is like a visual diary with entries from thousands of anonymous diarists (and the abundance of “trick” shots or humorous gag shots tells us that people like to play).

For the snapshooter, subject matter is paramount. As I mentioned, the collector and I have divided the collection of snapshots (which are mostly American and European) into categories based on their content. Since most of the snapshots date from the 1920s to the 1960s, during the rise of photography as a hobby, there are certain subjects—such as small-town parades, lonely wooden train tracks that lead away from country railroad stations, blimps, zeppelins, automobiles, children in pushcarts, and men on telephone poles—that now appear quaint and old-fashioned. Generally speaking, however, people took pictures of one another more than they did landscapes, objects, or abstract forms; thus, to my eye, most snapshots take human beings and the things we do as their subjects.

As Cartier-Bresson wrote in his seminal piece on photography, The Decisive Moment, “There is subject in all that takes place in the world, as well as in our personal universe.” And so, like an artist, a snapshooter chooses his or her subject: “We cannot negate subject. It is everywhere. So we must be lucid toward what is going on in the world, and honest about what we feel.”3 Thus, some of the best snapshots describe exactly what the snapshooter intended: a lover, one’s parents, one’s children, a parade, a trip to the beach. No subject is too small, too insignificant to photograph. My father, a photography instructor, often advises his students, from beginning to advanced: “Everything is subject! Photograph anything and everything!” As Cartier-Bresson wrote, “In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a leitmotiv. We see and show the world around us, but it is an event itself which provokes the organic rhythm of forms.”4 Thus, we understand the reason for our categories such as “Children in Pushcarts,” “Women in Furs,” “Automobiles,” “People in Life Preservers,” and other equally small, quotidian subjects.

“Here I Am!” Pictures

There is one substantial category of snapshots I have not yet defined, at least not officially, and that is the simple, posed photograph, usually full-length, of one person or a small group—family or friends—looking solemnly at the camera, in front of a backdrop of no particular note, such as a front yard, a hedge, or the entrance to a nondescript city building. The solemn, full-length pose: the straight shot. I want to call them “Here I am!” pictures. Belonging to the same tradition as portraiture, carved initials on a classroom desk, and scribbled graffiti on a bathroom wall, these snapshots feature people that stand erect before the photographer, who will document their experiences—and, therefore, their existence—with visual proof. You can just hear the accompanying narratives: “See, here I am in front of Aunt Susie’s house in Charleston,” “Oh! Here we are, about to go to Caroline’s wedding, all dressed up!” “There’s the Eiffel Tower—it looks smaller in the photograph,” and so on. You can hear them, and imagine them, because you have been such a narrator yourself. Snapshots not only commemorate significant moments; they also ratify an individual’s experiences, preserving each one as proof of a life, we hope, well lived.

Pictures of Strangers

Nonetheless, this is not enough to explain the urge to collect snapshots. Why do we bother looking at pictures of strangers? Is it a historical exercise? It can be, but since most snapshots have unknown provenances, historical inquiry cannot be the primary joy or purpose of collecting them. (And, I should add, my collector is not a historian.) Is it a sentimental experience? Yes, but since the people in these snapshots are strangers, whose identities will never be known to us, the nostalgic, sentimental element goes only so deep. It certainly does not account for my collector’s ten thousand photographs. Also, as acknowledged by scholars and amateur photographers themselves, snapshots are rarely collected for their monetary value, and the market for them, although growing, is essentially insignificant when compared with that of fine art photography. My collector has never paid more than $150 for any given snapshot; most cost him five dollars or less.

Form and Composition

So the answer must lie somewhere in the definition of photography itself. For despite its lack of artistic intention, a snapshot is, primarily, a photograph. Apart from subject matter, snapshots are compositions within a frame, generally rectangular or square, printed on a sheet of photographic paper. Their composition—arrangement of shapes within the given frame, determined by the photographer, subject matter, and outside influences (weather, light, movement, camera, distance), because photography is simultaneously inclusive and exclusionary—gives them their individuality and form. As Cartier-Bresson wrote, “One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.” Even the snapshooter, in all of his or her amateurism, chooses when to take the picture, and it is this “decisive moment” that creates and defines a photograph. This composition—planned or circumstantial—determines the quality of the snapshot as photograph (there is, as Cartier-Bresson termed it, a “geometry” to picture taking).5

In addition to composition, snapshots have form. By form I mean that each and every snapshot has a specific, rhythmic order that gives each shot its individuality, its “thingness.” It is a record, yes, but a visual one. Now, certainly not all snapshots possess what Cartier-Bresson called a “geometric pattern,” and some do border on the “formless and lifeless.”6 These, however, are usually not the snapshots in a collector’s collection. As any collector or dealer will tell you, some snapshots are better than others. Some shots are more coveted simply because there are few like them (World War I pictures and those of gay couples are some of the rarer subjects that come to mind), while others (such as the common shot of one person standing in a front yard) often remain in the pile, glanced over and rejected by the collector’s discerning eye. But within our box of “People in Cornfields,” for example, there are snapshots that stand out from the rest because their form—their composition, geometry, rhythm, and order—moves, arrests, and transports, in the way that only art can.

We come to snapshots as strangers investigating found objects, rescued treasure. Since our response to them is intrinsically tied to the manner by which we first discovered them, snapshots’ anonymity—their very “foundness”—is their form.

The Snapshot Aesthetic

The term snapshot aesthetic surfaced in critical circles during the 1950s to describe the work of Garry Winogrand in particular, as well as that of Joel Meyerowitz, Lee Friedlander, and other greats. Influenced by photographers such as Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Winogrand’s work departed from mainstream photography’s emphasis on clear representation and neat, well-balanced composition. He photographed public spaces familiar to all of us—lobbies, airports, public parks, squares, street corners, and zoos—in unfamiliar, astounding ways. To conservative critics Winogrand’s photographs seemed untidy and strange, maybe because they appeared too “messy” or “real”—not the stuff of fine art photography. Winogrand, however, dismissed the comparison of his work to the snapshot, noting, in his words, snapshot photography’s inextricable obsession with subject matter. When I examine a small selection of my favorite snapshots from the collection and hold them next to a book of Winogrand’s photographs, I both understand the association and appreciate his insistence on the distinction.

By “snapshot aesthetic” the critics and scholars of photography pointed to snapshot photography’s attention to the real and the actual, as opposed to the ideal, the composed, the fabricated, of which we see the former, in its finest form, in Winogrand’s photographs. Instead of “snapshot aesthetic,” let’s say that Winogrand and his peers photographed the artlessness of life—typically the domain of snapshot photography—in a new, artful way. Winogrand is famous for having said, “The photograph isn’t what was photographed. It’s something else. It’s a new fact.”7 Thus, even though snapshots record a moment in a life, they are indeed facts—objects—in and of themselves.


When content and form are in concert, snapshots resonate on both an aesthetic and an emotional level. In these familiar shots of anonymous families, friends, lovers, and children we will never know, we sometimes experience pathos, for the images can remind us of moments in our own lives. Despite the technological advances made in photography since the invention of the Kodak Brownie, people still take snapshots in much the same way as they did fifty years ago. If you walk through Times Square, you will see dozens of the “Here I am!” snapshots in the making—a woman taking a picture of her boyfriend in front of a Broadway marquee, a mother photographing her children in front of the Disney Store, a man holding up his hands to point to the larger-than-life billboard above him. The backdrops seem banal and ordinary to the passerby, but the impulse is universal: to document an experience visually and prove that we were there.

So, when looking through piles of snapshots, we cannot help but to identify with the strangers who appear in them, as we recognize familiar scenarios, settings, and memories. Usually taken with some affection for the subject, snapshots are often imbued with feeling and largely avoid Edward Weston’s stark warning on the more unfortunate of photographs: “Recording unfelt facts by acquired rule results in sterile inventory.”8 The empathy of seeing a teenager’s awkward moments captured in a snapshot, for example, reminds us of our own. The snapshot situates this awkwardness in a specific, untouchable past, where all the adolescent angst of that moment exists merely in our mind, and it is up to the viewer to choose whether or not to access it. A good snapshot is anything but sterile. In these tiny monuments to quotidian life we observe the continuity of human experience.

Since snapshooters are never entirely in control of their medium, snapshots contain an element of chance. (Think of the endless list of things that have affected you—and therefore the outcome of the photograph—while you’ve tried to take a picture: the glare of the sun, something moving in the background, a car going by, an automatic flash.) Unlike studio photographs, snapshots do not enjoy the privilege of a controlled environment; they take place in the “real” world: messy, unpredictable, and flawed. Thus, snapshots are moments of order imposed on an otherwise disorderly world. The events they depict cannot be recreated or revisited. As soon as the shutter opens and closes, the camera captures the moment as it was, and the snapshot becomes an entirely new thing—an object—separate from the moment of its creation. With age, the edges may fray, the surface can crack, its colors may change.9 (And it should be noted that black-and-white photography is, in itself, an abstraction of reality.) And so, the ontology of a snapshot is never fixed, while the image it depicts is, as Cartier-Bresson put it, “a simple, factual testimony.”10

Much like a poet reading his or her poetry, snapshots create order where previously there was none. A few months ago I sat in my father’s apartment, thinking about all the things I had to do. I was scattered, nervous, distracted. Then my father asked me if I wanted to listen to something. The next minute Ezra Pound’s booming, imposing voice blasted through the speakers, filling up the living room with the sound of his poetry: rounded vowels; sharp, staccato consonants; scratchy breaths; and static from the recording. All of a sudden there was order. I forgot about my list of things to do and sat listening. When the record finished, there was silence again, and the mess of my life came back to me. Like poets reading their own poems, snapshots are our visual narratives of our life’s work: whom we knew, where we went, what we saw, what we did there, and what we looked like at various moments throughout our lives.

Poetry of a Collective Past

Snapshots can be tiny windows into the past, brimming with emotional and visual significance. For instance, the nudes in the collection I work with are largely amateur. We can therefore assume that they were taken by the subject’s—usually a woman—lover in a moment of affection, attraction, and desire. They are often humorous, as the woman in the picture strikes her sexiest pose, but the humor is of a generous, loving nature. Equipped with all the tender mishaps and un-Hollywood imperfection of real relationships, they speak to the desire in all of us to find someone and capture that person, as Fred Astaire sang to Ginger Rogers, “just the way you look tonight.” They illustrate the meaning behind W. H. Auden’s verses in “Alone”:

Whatever view we hold, it must be shown
Why every lover has a wish to make
Some other kind of otherness his own:
Perhaps, in fact, we never are alone.11

For, as the snapshot makes clear, the woman in the picture is never alone; at the moment we see her, she is intently aware of the person behind the camera, who is framing her within the bounds of the shot, subtly and permanently joined to her at that very moment, and for as long as the snapshot survives. Snapshots allow us to connect to a continuous, shared experience by providing us with visual, photographic records of life in the distant and immediate past. So snapshots are vessels for the imagination. But why does our imagination need such vessels? There are plenty of other kinds of documents that act as fuel for our mind’s wanderings.

William Butler Yeats’s 1933 poem “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” contemplates the nature of the imagination—belonging to the mind—and its relation to the soul. The speaker of the poem, an aging man “[l]ong past his prime,”12 wonders, perplexed, why his imagination leads him down the winding narratives of ancient history. In one of his wanderings he arrives at the image of “Sato’s ancient blade, still as it was, /  . . . / Unspotted by the centuries” (10–12) and loses himself momentarily in imagined associations of “[t]hat flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn / From some court-lady’s dress” (13–14). Lest he linger too long in his daydream, he moves from an examination of the self to one of the soul, asking:

My Soul. Why should the imagination of a man
Long past his prime remember things that are
Emblematical of love and war?

In other words, what is an old man doing conjuring images of swords, court ladies, and ancient blades, “[s]till razor-keen, still like a looking-glass” (11)? What are we, in the year 2008, surrounded by Web sites like Flickr and our own prolific digital masses (or messes), doing looking at snapshots of strangers from 1921?

The answer, beautifully examined in the poem, addresses the power of imagination in its purest form. Above all else, it is a transporting faculty; ignoring the limitations of reality, imagination takes one to a place accessible only in the mind. Thus, the speaker in Yeats’s poem is able to recall, with the aid of his imagination, a time in which he himself never lived. In the quiet of his thoughts he accesses “things that are / Emblematical of love and war” (18–19), understanding that the “ancestral night” (20) has the power to “[d]eliver from the crime of death and birth” (24). Imagining the past—and Yeats implies a collective past, not simply his speaker’s life—sates the pain of earthly existence by providing us with images and stories of ancient struggles and romances, connecting us to our ancestors, known and unknown.

This process can be fraught with pain and frustration. Why, one might ask, should we relive the growing pains, hard-learned lessons, rejections, regrets, and mistakes of life, someone else’s or our own? Once over, wouldn’t we rather forget them entirely, content to live in the present alone? On the contrary, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” ends in a statement on the necessity of the imagination. The speaker, wondering, “What matter if I live it all once more?” (43), wonders why he would endure “[t]he ignominy of boyhood; the distress / Of boyhood changing into man” (45–46).

Witness, here, the determined answer: he will revisit even the most painful memories conjured up by his imagination:
I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!

The poem ends in triumph; faced with the imperfect “lot” of life, having found forgiveness for himself and others, our speaker will gladly live it all again:

When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

Like the speaker in Yeats’s poem, lost in imagined fantasies, when I look at snapshots, I find myself wandering in make-believe worlds far from my immediate reality. Sometimes the contrast of the black and white on the paper makes me imagine a time when color pictures didn’t exist; other times it’s a boxer’s arm, photographed so well that it appears as if drawn with a careful hand, and I’m lost in the contours of his musculature; still other snapshots make me pause, take me who-knows-where: a cornfield, a strange home, the beach in winter, a rowboat on a lake—perhaps imagining “things that are / Emblematical of love and war” (18–19). They might sting of some personal memory—or lack thereof. Like any work of art, they are at once intimate and strange, familiar and unreachable. By showing us the imperfect, unpredictable, messier, impulsive moments of life, a vast collection of snapshots such as the one I know shows life as it is lived: the very stuff of life. It expands our collective visual memory, giving us avenues into which our imagination can, and should, escape.


1. Cartier-Bresson, Decisive Moment, 4–5.
2.The exhibition, “The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson” is currently on view until December 31st, 2007 at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Some other institutions that have featured exhibitions on snapshots include: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: “Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life,” May 22nd – September 28th, 1998, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Other Pictures: Vernacular Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection,” which ran from June 6th – August 27th, 2000.
3. Cartier-Bresson, Decisive Moment, 6.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid, 8.
6. Ibid.
7. Winogrand, Man in the Crowd (unpaginated).
8. Weston, Photography, 61. Written for 40-Print Exhibition, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, May 4, 1930. 
9. Most of the photographs in the collection I work with are black and white; however, there are quite a few color snapshots, as well as older cyanotypes.
10. Cartier-Bresson, Decisive Moment, 7.
11. Auden, “Alone,” lines 16–19.
12. Yeats, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” line 18; hereafter cited in text.

Hannah Lifson is a native New Yorker. For the past year she has spent her days off working for a snapshot collector. These days were the inspiration for her essay.

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