In response to…The Snapshot, Core Curriculum: Writings on Photography by Tod Papageorge

by Rebecca J Gerken

It is more than likely that every photographer has a slightly different definition of the ‘snapshot’. For me, it is similar to Tod Papageorge’s view as described in Core Curriculum, the snapshot being ‘tied in meaning to the family album’[i]. In turn, he describes this as being ‘a book that bought to photography a new vernacular form’[ii]. Perhaps it has something to do with a haphazard speed with which the outcome is far from perfect but the image still serves an important purpose, to the photographer if no one else; the tourists casually leaning against the tower of Pisa on honeymoon, the camera hastily being pulled out to capture the Red Arrows on their way to an air show or an uncle snapping away during the annual family gathering. And perhaps in this sense (and I like to think that Papageorge would agree somewhat), I see the snapshot as an everyday form of photography whose impact only effects the shutter-presser and their nearest and dearest.

Family albums are personal and unique in every way, from the photographs themselves to the ordering and captioning. It is this personalism that, in a way, deadens impact with this form of photography. Looking through someone else’s album is interesting up to a point; no one wants to see albums full of dead pets or the insides of hotel rooms. Roland Barthes, whilst commenting on some photographs of his mother, wrote, ‘If I were to show them to friends I could doubt that those photographs would speak.’[iii] On a similar note, it is Papageorge’s opinion that in the eyes of photographers, most snapshots ‘strike but do not hold’[iv]. I am sure there are numerous reasons for this, but the foremost in my mind is simply the idea that the snapshot is far too common, personal and, honestly, uninteresting to become anything more than it already is.

Papageorge highlights the fact that the images in the family album don’t have to be perfect by commenting, ‘when pasted in and titled with white ink, all the minor subversion and impingement cutting in from the corner of the frame can be ignored.’[v] By stating this, he is thus signifying that everything but the subject can be ignored and that the importance of the snapshot is effectually not in the taking of, but in the presentation and imminent adoration of the images. Thinking about this, it would mean that the purpose of Papageorge’s definition of the snapshot is for the pleasure of remembering and also for proof, as Sontag touches on acutely in On Photography: ‘Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the programme carried out, that fun was had.’[vi] Was the initial use and idea of photography not partly for representational purposes, for those to record the world and its occupants for the unperceivable future?

This has had an effect on all forms of photography, the snapshot included. Without the notion of recording the truth through photography, the entire debate surrounding the medium’s integrity would be void; think of the Cottingley Fairies, the pyramids of Giza and the immortal Migrant Mother. It is rare for a family to go on an outing without recording it in any way. It is all about making history; believable history. Barthes solidifies this idea in Camera Lucida by stating, ‘with the photograph, my certainty is immediate.’[vii]

Of course, as I previously, briefly mentioned, Papageorge’s snapshot is not everyone’s. He mentions, ‘happy accidents do happen, and probably in direct proportion to the chances the photographer takes’[viii]. In itself, this could define the snapshot. Taking a chance implies a quick, almost unplanned movement to which the outcome could be anything. In my mind, the word ‘unplanned’ is inexplicably linked to ‘snapshot’, meaning I couldn’t help comparing it to happy accidents.

Consequently, haven’t some of the greatest photographs in history, in effect, been happy accidents? Take Cartier Bresson’s decisive moment, the photographs that has borne, the famous, harrowing imagery captured during wars, and street photography in general. Surely work by the likes of Walker Evans, Joel Meyerowitz and Paul Strand could be considered, if only on paper, as happy accidents as they weren’t (aren’t) specifically planned? Does this therefore make them snapshots?

Bearing this in mind, I realise how the term ‘snapshot’ has been used as a derogative phrase, as it would be bold indeed to call any of the above ‘accidental’ photographers. Whether the snapshot is seen as being used for people’s own personal use, to record history, to make it, or something entirely different (it is evident there is more than one definition), it is still seen as an inferior form of photography, even if only slightly, and if only by a few. ‘Snapshot’ is a belittling word, if you will.

[i] P. 12, Papageorge, T. (2011) Core Curriculum

[ii] P. 12, Papageorge, T. (2011) Core Curriculum

[iii] P. 64, Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida

[iv] P. 12, Papageorge, T. (2011) Core Curriculum

[v] P. 12, Papageorge, T. (2011) Core Curriculum

[vi] P. 9, Sontag, S. (1971) On Photography

[vii] P. 115, Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida

[viii] P. 14 Papageorge, T. (2011) Core Curriculum