Exhibit shows history of American photography and life through the art of amateur images
By JASON ALDAG
To self-edit one’s work is a difficult proposition for photographers. Some find it impossible to step away from the emotion of the image and set aside their personal connections.
But to edit another’s work is an easier task. Without the photographers’ connection, the image can be judged on aesthetic and the emotion it conveys, allowing the viewer to make his or her own personal connections.
The collection of anonymous snapshots compiled by Seattle businessman Robert E. Jackson — now at the National Gallery of Art until the end of December — is a compelling history of the snapshot in America from 1888 to 1978. It is a masterpiece of picture editing that avoids being a sentimental journey through history and rather becomes a map of the American psyche. By transcending the personal connections of their creators, images reveal key facets of American photography and life.
The novelty of the medium and its early limitations are evident in the stylized and premeditated pictures of the 19th century. Many of the snapshots taken at this time involved trick photography, props and costumes.
Some of the most compelling images of the 19th century were a result of technical limitations and user error, or what exhibit guide Chris With described as “successful failures.” This is when double exposures, misfocuses or light leaks create unexpected emotion and texture in the image.
In these early photos, relationships were explored with a naïveté expected of the Victorian period. As With points out, the images foreshadow an increasing trend to reveal our most private moments.
In the 20th century, the exhibit shows us an increasing visual literacy of the amateurs as image-rich magazines such as “Life” and “Look” began to emerge.
There is a conscious attempt to be modern and hip during this time as magazines accept amateur submissions and the “impetus to become a photographer emerges,” With said.
After World War I, the stress of war combined with technical innovation led to “healthy images” of people outside swimming, running and riding motorcycles — images impossible to achieve without viewfinders and portable cameras.
Images from the ’40s onward suggest that Americans became comfortable revealing their sexuality in front of the camera as cross-dressing, boudoir photos and homosexual themes were explored. Then as cameras became more portable and convenient, little of life was considered off limits, and photographs of private moments, including sleep and romance, became more common.
“People were emboldened by the camera and invading the bedroom. Nothing is off limits, and you can see [what looks like] the start of reality TV,” With said.
When we arrive to the ’60s and ’70s, the snapshots reveal political, sexual and social issues more frequently. Color photography became increasingly common when Kodachrome was introduced into the public market.
The introduction of the color emulsion was the culmination of 90 years of photographic science and a far cry from the cumbersome 19th century process used to produce a single image.
Early snapshots were very labor intensive, using many chemicals and fragile glass plates to expose and develop the image.
The earliest photographers used collodion negatives made of glass. In the late 19th century, the big innovation was flexible film that sat on a roller within the camera.
On a recent tour, photograph conservator Constance McCabe showed examples of the cameras and emulsions used in each era.
Early models were simply a light tight box that was pointed at the subject at waist level.The exposure was made by simply removing the lens cap.
It’s easy to see from these early models how many of the “successful failures” occurred.
The most successful of the consumer cameras was the Kodak Brownie, which went through a number of iterations throughout the 80 years it was in production, McCabe said.
The exhibit ends with pictures taken with an instant-film camera.The most popular of these models was the Polaroid SX-70.
Another engaging aspect of the exhibit is the unique way in which the images are mounted. They look as if they are floating delicately above the mounting board.
Stephen Muscarella, a matter and framer at the National Gallery of Art, took two-and-a-half months to mount the pictures. With the help of three assistants, Muscarella devised the system using two separate cut outs and a reversed backing so the bevels would fit securely in the first opening giving the image the illusion of floating on the mat.
“Sometimes it was eight hours a day just cutting mats. It’s like peeling potatoes in the military,” Muscarella said.
The challenge was to mount the small images to a surface that would stand up to the rigors of travel, as the exhibit moves to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, at the end of the month.
It is the first time that this system has been used to mount photographs, McCabe said.