When Snapshots Changed the Face of Photography

An early 20th C. glass plate negative

The traditional “straight ahead” photo of most of the 20th century was something popularly referred to as a snapshot, an outgrowth of camera and film manufacturers to increase usage of their products among a broader population. Way back in 1900, Kodak introduced the Brownie camera, encouraging users to capture a moment in time, a moment they called a "Kodak" moment. What was meant by this term?

The word "snapshot" came from a concept of capturing a fraction of a second, as a snap of the fingers. Quick, easy and cheap was the driving force behind the snapshot. In the late 19th century, glass plates still were used as negatives, but the size was reduced and used in the new wave of small "folding" cameras. At least the camera was lighter weight and easier to carry around, as opposed to the one-to-a-shot film holders, which were annoying to haul around.

Folding camera

With the turn of the century, that problem was erased by the advent of negative emulsion laminate to lightweight rolls of film. And that did it: by the first half of the 20th century, the camera became accessible to everyone and photos were made easy to take, develop and print.

You would have thought photo journalists would have adopted this early on, and though they did not, the public did. What a thrill to open the folding camera, point, focus and shoot in seconds - that is - a snapshot!

The advantage was especially noticeable in making unposed, or unarranged, photos of people and stuff – this idea of something "candid" was adopted as a popular photo expression. (The idea of "candid" also appeared in a popular TV show of the 1950's called Candid Camera. In it, people were filmed in surprising or difficult situations before it was revealed to them that they were on television!) And somehow along the way, that morphed into something to indicate a more candid, or honest, photo than ones that involved the photographer's idea of what was seen.

A candid image from the 1930's

But candid it was not, any more than those in which photographers went to greater lengths to express what they saw of the tangible world. People seeing an Ansel Adams’ landscape today may assume his images were candid. That’s how they looked in the print the audience saw, exactly as the image impressed itself on the film, and therefore, what was on the print was what you went to that location to see for yourself.

But the reality of his work, by his own practices and statements, was anything but that. Adams’ "Basic Photo Series" training books provide vast details on all the manipulations of the development of the negative and the print, often involving a long list of things he did that he recorded so his duplicate prints looked the same as his first one.

And that was the way many photographers worked from the origins of photography. Today, artists like me continue that tradition. The only difference is that the means have changed from the limited messy and poisonous darkroom fluids to the safer nonpolluting means of the computer's "darkroom" app and machines to print instead of those awful poisons.

Debunking the idea that somehow an image straight from the camera's exposure is more honest (candid) than others is easy. When we say a candid photo depicts reality, is that a fact? Hardly. Every camera-based image ever made is a form of interpretation for a number of reasons. Here is a short list:

· The photographer chooses the perspective by angle of shot, height, distance to subject.

· The photographer emphasizes details through how the image is framed and deciding if it is vertical, horizontal, or a square,

· The photographer chooses the time length of the shot so it maybe be blurred or moving recording it in the camera in ways the human brain understands, but we don’t actually see that way.

· The photographer uses lenses that compress or expand space or the virtual depth and warps the perspective to some degree.

Roll film still used today

Perhaps the most profound difference is between the way we see and how our brain interprets the eye's visual data. Our brain does not take snapshots; it does not recognize physical experiences as single frames as if it was a camera. Actually, a film may be more representative of the brain's recognition capacity, but even that has its limits, since our brain attaches smell, sound, and touch to the event that is observed. You can experiment with this by bringing back into your mind an old memory that was not an event that was photographed. As you try to imagine or picture that event in your visual memory, is it a still single frame or does it move, that is to say, there is a time movement to the memory?

A photo I took from forty years ago

The point is that photography takes many shapes of expression and they all have their validity. The audience understands the medium's potential range of creation better when they accept that photography, regardless of the extreme use of snapshots in social media via smart phones, is way more than that. Anyone who collects may want to consider this and decide which one or more of the photographic expressions they are inclined to be comfortable with, then build their collection around those choices.

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