Friday 21 November 2008

On Photography - snapshot photography

The term ‘snapshot’ usually refers to an unrehearsed amateur black and white photograph made sometime between 1900 and 1980. Frequently, these images are a spontaneous and casual record of social interaction - a party, an outing, a pet, a holiday or a gathering of family and friends. Snapshots can actually become the visual memory of some memorable event or encounter. Early on, they were exposed outdoors because of the roll film's inability to cope with low light conditions. By 1965, indoor images started occuring simply people wanted to try making some of their snapshots indoors.

I attach some interesting vernacular snapshots, sourced from Flickr at

The publisher of these images, Redbricktudor, has noted that the group portrait of Catholic priests was purchased in the town of Magnolia, Texas, during November 2004. These four men are recorded during their seminarian period and all wear black cassocks (also called the soutane). They are probably aged in their early twenties and none appear to be Catholic Jesuits, who always wore a cassock secured by hook fastenings rather than buttons.

Judging from the dimensions of the snapshot a date between 1920 and 1925 seems likely. The use of pomade to slick their hair into a closely parted coiffure is also accurate to that period. All four priests are posing for an informal portrait, although the man holding the prayer book seems the most relaxed. It is interesting to note that his cassock is made using silk.

Redbricktudor purchased another portrait of one of the priest’s from a dealer at Hardwick, Vermont, during August 2004. It is fascinating to see that it is of the same priest who is second from the left in the earlier group image. This snapshot must date from about a decade later. This man is no longer a seminarian but a fully-fledged priest. He is taking his photo-moment seriously and he looks much older and more care-worn, by about 10 years, than in the earlier group picture.

One feature common to early snapshots is the fact that the frame edges are almost always casually composed, as it was difficult to ascertain where the edges of the final photo would be. Often, snapshots are taken from a low camera angle in pre-1940 images, as the photographer had to look down into the camera’s viewfinder. Frequently, people gathered for the occasion of the photograph for some minutes and their facial expression frequently becomes ‘set’ by the waiting.

Snapshots came into being at the same time people began to own cameras, during the first two decades of the 20th century. Kodak first led the way with their Pocket Folding bellows camera (from about 1896), followed by the Box Brownie (from 1900) and their Kodak Instamatic (from 1965). These cameras were all cheap and portable. Their ease of use encouraged a regular usage of film and easy access to the commercially produced contact prints.

Click here to read more On Photography by Ron Brownson

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