A Snappy Show at the National Gallery

Posted October 31, 2007 at 5:58pm

In 1888, George Eastman patented a camera that used pre-loaded film, and registered the trademark “Kodak.” He coined the phrase: “You press the button, we do the rest.” And the snapshot was born.

At that moment, photography took two decisive turns: It became a medium of immediacy, and an object for the masses. Glass negatives gave way to roll film. Printing at home — a cumbersome, highly technical process — gave way to commercial photo-finishing shops.

And suddenly, tens of millions of ordinary people could create art.

That’s the premise behind an intriguing and revelatory exhibit in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, “The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978,” on view until Dec. 31.

Two hundred snapshots from Seattle-based collector Robert E. Jackson’s 9,000-strong snapshot collection are arranged chronologically in five rooms, perhaps the first time the snapshot — named after a hunting term for a shot fired quickly and haphazardly — has been the subject of a large-scale historical overview.

The exhibit, says co-curator Sarah Greenough, “gets to the heart of what makes photography so special — it preserves memory and it makes memory.” And it does so using the “very distinct ways the camera sees and records the world.”

Any snapshot exhibit, no matter how extraordinary the image, also captures the snapshot’s remarkable capacity for recording history, especially the routine sort of details that, without photographs, would fade away with time.

There’s the once-ubiquitous packet of Marlboro cigarettes that casually appears in the 1969 snapshot of a crawling baby, who’s staring at the red and white box with the intensity of a nicotine addict badly needing a smoke. A woman’s forearm and hand (presumably his mother’s) juts into the upper left-hand corner of the image, a maternal and protective gesture that contrasts with the mysterious void of the actual woman herself, who is just outside the photo’s boundaries.

A series of images by a woman known only as “Flo,” who lived in the YWCA in Milwaukee in the mid- to late 1950s, shows the banality of room furnishings — for example, a glass of drying silverware, a bowl and another glass, all resting on a sink ledge, as a woman bends under the spigot to wash her hair.

Some of the early snapshots, from the 1920s and 1930s, show the type of staged theatrical events that, Greenough notes, were common before television appeared in the 1950s.

The symbiosis between art photography and snapshots also becomes clear in the exhibit. “There’s an extraordinary range of images,” said Greenough. “People were stumbling across things that hadn’t been done before.”

For example, a 1910s snapshot of four children jumping down a sandy hill, the sand billowing upward, the kids’ feet and arms upraised, eerily foreshadows Robert Capa’s 1936 Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, his famous photo taken as the soldier, his arms outstretched, is falling to his death.

The black outline of a man’s shadow against a corrugated wall, leaning forward to pick up a heavily-bundled, smiling child, taken in the 1920s, brings an instant association with the 1932 Henri Cartier-Bresson shot of the portly gentleman jumping over a puddle behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, his life-size black shadow below him in the water.

And a 1960s color snapshot of a mildly annoyed woman standing a few feet from a large white cow whose rear end bumps into the frame’s left side, recalls a 1963 shot by street photographer Gary Winogrand of another woman in sunglasses and pearls with a slightly confused expression — and two placid rhinos behind her.

“You can walk through the exhibit, and you’re thinking: ‘There’s a Diane Arbus, there’s a Robert Frank, there’s a Lee Friedlander,’” says Greenough, the National Gallery’s senior photography curator.

There were other milestones in the history of the snapshot and the broadening of its mass appeal since its invention in 1888, explained Greenough.

Beginning in 1925, the German company Leica introduced its small and sturdy 35 millimeter camera, Kodak brought out its Kodacolor negative print film in 1942 and Polaroid released its black-and-white camera in 1948.

The Kodak Instamatic came out in 1963, with film cartridges that simply popped into the camera and didn’t need to be rolled, and in 1972 Polaroid released its color SX-70, which became a popular cultural symbol of the 1970s.

Ultimately, however, like any artwork, it’s the quality of the image, not its historical context, that counts, no matter how much the two ideas are interrelated.

“The Art of the American Snapshot” actually blends both social history and art, sometimes in equal portions. The 1960 snapshot of the man pointing a large toy pistol at his smiling child, who is seated on a couch with his own gun, is a picture of a far more innocent, less violent era. The picture’s composition, the line of the gun barrel, the anonymity of the man, the ordinariness of the cup of coffee, and the innocence of the child, all work as a powerful piece of art.

And then there’s the 1939 photo of the sturdy young girl, arms confidently folded, a wry smile framed by shaggy hair, staring directly at the photographer — at the precise moment a pigeon happened to land on her head.

Though a snapshot, it’s everything a photograph can be. The girl is clearly confident and full of life — the photograph as a window into the soul.

But the snapshot only works because it was taken in the split second before the pigeon flew off, the sort of “decisive moment” made famous by Cartier-Bresson, who, though a meticulous craftsman, paid homage to the snapshot in almost every photograph he took.