My father, Martin Elkort, is a collected and noteworthy photographer. His body of work, shot during a period of enormous possibility in our country, evokes feelings of both excitement and nostalgia in those that view and collect his photographs. Since my dad has become collectible, I’ve been to many of his shows and talked to gallery owners and collectors about his work and their own collections. The question always comes up whether I too have a photographic eye. Usually answering no, that I have been more a fan of video, it’s recently dawned on me that I am fascinated with a genre of photography called the snapshot. Snapshots are informal photographs, usually taken spontaneously and typically with a small consumer, hand held camera. Without all the trappings of artistic or journalistic intent, they have the ability to exquisitely capture moments of every day life.
Last summer I stayed at a Bed and Breakfast in Colorado Springs. It was a beautiful Victorian home that had been purchased by the present owner just five years previous. She and her husband had left a corporate life in Southern California to purchase and run their retirement dream, a beautiful 8 bedroom home lovingly restored and complete with period furniture including many turn-of-the-century photos on the walls of the main parlor. Many of the photographs were of the home when it was built, somewhere around 1910, with, most likely the new owners, standing in front posing for the snapshot. There were other photos, classic studio shots taken by local photographers of stiff faced matrons holding babies and husband & wife combos. But there were also some more casual snapshots of groups of people doing a variety of things that people do when they get together socially; picnicking, gathered at the swimming pool, and sitting around the yard. I asked the proprietress if she knew who the people in the photos were. Unfortunately she did not. They came with the house and were never identified. As I looked at these photos, I wondered what these people would want me to know if they knew that 100 years later, that snapshot would be hanging anonymously on a wall, lost for all intents and purposes. I felt a bit of sadness that we would never know their story.
I find myself drawn to other people’s old photos and snapshots, curious about the life that these 3×5 inch pieces of paper provide a glimpse into. My imagination runs rampant as I try to discern the unspoken in the photo. A friend of mine once sent me a photo of himself taken when he was 4. It was winter in Detroit and he was standing in front of an old car, sometime in the early 1950s. There was snow on the ground, the photo was black & white and the look on this little boys face was one of fear. I thought about my friend, the strong brave man he currently is and wondered about that small scared 4 year old. I wonder about those things.
The Art of the American Snapshot by Sarah Greenough, Diane Waggoner, Sarah Kennel reproduces some 250 snapshots on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, many part of a gift to the museum from the collection of Robert Jackson. It is the first book published that explores the history of the modern snapshot and how cultural factors affected the snapshot as well as how the evolution of the snapshot influenced modern photographers.
An amazing website on photographs is, Lostandfoundphotos.org – a website dedicated to collecting stories about lost photos. Started by Todd Wemmer as a doctoral dissertation project at the University of Massachusetts, Todd began collecting stories and interviewing people who have lost or found personal photographs/snapshots. These lost photographs may include single photos, albums, or large shoe boxes full of photos that may have been lost, stolen, misplaced or partially destroyed during a natural disaster. He is also working on a DVD project titled, “Where will your photos go when you die?” from stories and information collected during this project and what other people are doing with lost and found photos. Browsing around his site, you can listen to voice recorded stories of people who lost or found photos and find links to sites that focus on the more obscure aspects of snapshots such as The Museum of Mourning Photography & Memorial Practice, or Craigslist’s postings of lost and found cameras in most major US cities.
IamCubeHead, has created this little movie out of found photos.
Found photos provide a window into someone else’s life. When I was a child I used to look inside those decorated easter eggs with the panoramas inside made of molded sugar. I would imagine a whole world inside that tiny egg. Those worlds exist inside the snapshots. Finding the clues and learning the stories is a fascination that I am glad to find other people share.