Barbara Levine on Vintage Vernacular Photo Albums & Found Snapshots



Interview with Barbara Levine on Snapshot Photography in Les Photographes, November 8, 2011. By Liv Gudmundson

Barbara Levine writes about unusual collections and vernacular photography. She is the author of Finding Frida Kahlo (2009), Around The World: The Grand Tour in Photo Albums (2007), and Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing the American Photo Album (all Princeton Architectural Press). She is an artist, collector and seller of vintage photographs and other curiosities on projectb.com, and the former exhibitions director at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


LG: What first brought you to reflect on vernacular photography, and in particular, snapshots?

BL: My mother and grandmother loved to go to antique shops. As a child, while they were hunting for Limoges china and sterling silver compacts, the only thing I could ‘touch’ were the old photographs. Often, the photo albums, cabinet cards, tintypes, postcards and snapshots were mixed together in a pile in the corner. The discarded photos were very inexpensive and my mother encouraged me so I was bitten by the collecting bug early! I collected found photos and anything cheap, portable and related to the magic of photography. When I was in art school I fell in love with vernacular photograph albums. More recently, I decided to share my collection of vintage photograph albums by making Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing The American Photo Album and Around The World: The Grand Tour in Photo Albums (both Princeton Architectural Press) in the hopes they would contribute to the dialogue about vernacular within the history of photography. In 2009, my collection was acquired by the International Center of Photography in New York.

LG: Can you speak about how you organized the exhibit and book “Snapshot Chronicles?” What was your selection process for images, what were you hoping to highlight with this display?

BL: I wanted the book to illustrate the ways in which amateur photographers in arranging their photographs on pages of personal photo albums used inventive collage techniques, surprising visual sequencing, and evocative text to construct biographical picture stories that speak to as passionately to us today as they did to their creators so many years ago.

Some albums are notable because the photographs themselves are exquisite, revealing a surprising sophistication for the medium and its expressive qualities. But other albums are remarkable as a form of folk art: ordinary photos are used as raw material and transformed into a visual keepsake. Album-makers freely experimented with visual techniques, from creative cropping, shredding, silhouetting, collages and patterns, to witty annotation, literary fancy, and sequencing that borders on the cinematic.

For the exhibition, rather than focus on the nostalgia inherent in vintage albums, Stephanie Snyder (Director of Cooley Art Gallery at Reed College) and I wanted to foreground their contemporary appeal as windows into private lives. “

LG: In this book, “Snapshot Chronicles,” I really appreciated how you differentiated between a snapshot and a photo album. Can you describe your thinking about how the photo album changes our perception and reading of snapshots?

BL: The photo album is by nature a flow of images that create a narrative. Photos are arranged on a page and by turning pages the viewer activates the story. Single snapshot images don’t have that same quality.”
In your various projects, have you noticed the presence of any national or regional themes within the snapshots? (ie. do you think an “American snapshot” style could exist, as compared to another country?)

Kodak was an American company but their products were sold around the world. I think their advertising about shared values and how to properly compose a photograph probably influenced photographers worldwide. There is a lot of room for scholarship about the snapshot ascetic and Western values as propagated by Kodak and American advertising companies. “

LG: In what ways is vernacular photography embedded with the personality of the photographers or subjects photographed? Similarly, at what point, or in what circumstances, does culture become visible in snapshots?

BL: With anonymous found photographs there are many layers: what the photographer sees, the photographer’s relationship with subject(s), the subject(s) response to the situation, what the camera sees, and what the past and current owners of the image see reflected back in the composition of the photograph.”

LG: Do you think vernacular photography reveals more about the individual photographer or more about the generation of snapshooters?

BL: Both. If you assemble a large group of snapshots from the same era it is inevitable both period-specific as well as timeless themes will emerge. As for what is revealed about the photographer, the only thing revealed is what the current owner of the photograph thinks about the image and how they deconstruct and contextualize it within their own collection or idea.”

LG: In addition to writing about snapshots, you collect and sell them. Can you describe this process of collecting?

BL: For me, collecting is about the anticipation I am going to discover something which I find beautiful or speaks to me emotionally. I collect many different kinds of things related to photography, stories, and the suspension of disbelief. I like to live with photographs for a period of time and decide whether they extend my artistic or curatorial interests or merely amplify what I already have and if the latter, I then sell the image.

LG: I imagine your website, www.projectb.com, is an important conduit for your snapshot exchanges. Can you speak about the use of the internet in collecting and in continuing the “life” of a snapshot?

BL: Technology has ended the snapshot as physical object but it has also enabled us to peruse an infinity of anonymous vernacular photographs at any time of day or night. The volumes of photos people are viewing on social networking sites are creating an appreciation and new interest in vintage vernacular photographs. My website, projectb.com, and my newsletter, SnapShot, generates a lot of exchanges between collectors, dealers, curators, artists, designers and photography historians. Often, the collector (artist, writer, etc.) is interested in creating a new meaning for the pictures, more than likely mirroring something different from what the snapshooter or original owner intended to save.”