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“I’m more interested in the stories, the experiences, the memories, and the emotions surrounding photographs than I am in what they look like”

Interview with Annebella Pollen

by Róza Tekla Szilágyi

Annebella Pollen is Professor of Visual and Material Culture at University of Brighton, UK, where she researches undervalued archives and untold stories in art and design history. Inspired by her research and books on mass photography and the popular image we reached out to talk about family albums, found photos, vernacular archives and the reasons behind her academic interest in vernacular photography.

There's a greater interest in vernacular photographs and the works of amateur photographers, even though scholars have for quite a long time stated that these are really repetitive images and not worth including in the photographic canon. What might be the reason behind this newfound interest? Is it the nostalgic aspect of these photographs?

That's an interesting question. When I first started thinking about vernacular photography in the early 2000s, I was aware that there was an emerging body of theory around the topic, and over the last 25 years there has been a building of interest. In 2000, for example, there was a special issue of History of Photography devoted to the question of vernacular photography. As I started excavating the historiography of what had been written about – whatever you might want to call it, snapshot photography, family photography, and so on – I kept finding that there were earlier and earlier texts. There were some foundational texts in the 1980s in Britain about family photography and how it might be understood. And then, as I worked back, I learned that in the 1970s, especially in the US, people – especially artists – had been thinking about the found photograph, the utilitarian photograph, and the snapshot photograph. In 1974, for example, Aperture Foundation produced a book titled The Snapshot edited by Jonathan Green. So whether this interest is new or not, I'm not sure because I was born in 1973, so the serious study of snapshot photography is as old as me; that’s already been half a century at least.

Annebella Pollen in Tirana, Albania, Spring 2022

It's surely true that a new generation is now thinking about it, and they're probably thinking about it differently because it's something that is now outside of their experience. For example, BA students who I teach and who want to do their dissertations on what they think of as analogue photographs, or photographs on paper, have a very different memory of it than I have because some of those students were born in the 21st century. So they were born at a time when digital photography was the norm. They may have had a disposable camera as a child, and they may have family photograph albums in their home, but they themselves are digital natives.

In my opinion, one of the recent anxieties about digital photography, networked photography, photography that circulates on social media, and smartphone photography, is how to make sense of something that is beyond comprehensible scale, and beyond what can be handled. There are numbers that circulate about how many photographs there are in the world, how many photographs are produced and uploaded, networked, disseminated, and so on. These numbers are mind boggling and they're constantly expanding, and I think there's a sense of bewilderment among some people about how we can handle this. Some people think there are too many photographs being taken. 

So there are all sorts of social anxieties about the scale of contemporary photographic practice, which makes people look back at a former photographic practice and ascribe different values to it that it didn't actually have at the time. And whether those are nostalgic or not, I'm not sure, because nostalgia is quite a complex thing. It may not be personal nostalgia for someone's own experience, but it's certainly providing a different historical perspective on what's now called analogue photographs, which of course weren't called analogue at the time.

Erik Kessels, 24 Hrs in Photos, installation, 2014, source: erikkessels.com

I think people are looking back at this time when photography practice was restricted and minimal, where people only took one roll of film a year with 24 or 36 exposures and were thinking differently about what those photographs meant compared to now, when people take 24 or 36 photographs an hour. So I do think it's partly to do with the sort of technological moment that we find ourselves in, that's kind of casting history in a new light.

There's a visual charm that people find in analogue photographs, especially personal portraits and family photographs. Obviously, there are collectors who collect them and art practitioners who use them as a medium. And that's been going on for a long time—perhaps 50 years. But I think it is also because they're cheap and easily available, so there's a great wealth of material if people do want to collect. You can enter this photo-collecting market really cheaply.

And there's also a huge abundance of that material. So one of the things that's been really interesting for me as an academic in this area is that my partner is a bric-a-brac dealer, and he often clears out people's houses after someone's died. And when families or estates are disposing of their photographs and those go into the second-hand market, they go into circulation, and there's a huge amount of photographs that are circulating, and lots and lots of people are buying them. So I think partly it's to do with the availability of that material too.

Can we trace this academic interest to the fact that, academically speaking, vernacular photography is still an uncharted territory where one can gain space and attention for their original  thoughts?

Whether this interest has to do with the academics wanting to stake a territory is a really good question. Geoffrey Batchen is a really big contributor to this area, but his thinking has changed over time. He was one of the people originally coming with an art historian's perspective, not an anthropologist's perspective or a sociologist's perspective. As such, he was one of a group of scholars who found it really hard to make sense of this vernacular photographic material because none of the art historical frameworks would work well with it. Besides, what was acceptable as an art historically valuable photograph was really narrow from the 1970s to the 1990s; it had to conform to certain kinds of looks and styles. It had to be made by someone who was accomplished and well known. All so this position was troubled by this kind of anonymous mass of photographs that looks perhaps repetitive or overwhelming, and that couldn't be fitted into an art historical frame. I think now there's a much wider interest in the value of visual culture rather than just straight Art photography with a capital A. That has to do with the discipline of art history changing and people wanting to get different perspectives and to widen the reach of what art can be. And that might include non-professional photography and everyday visual culture as well. So personally, I think it's a good thing to expand those parameters; there’s so much still to be said.

I have this sense that if or when these paper-based images disappear, with them a collective history of the 20th century disappears as well, along with the marginalised histories these images often depict. What kind of importance do you think these family albums or vernacular photographs have when we are thinking about the history of the past century? Is it important to keep them safe for future generations?

I think it's really important. There's probably far more material than could ever be satisfactorily collected, however. What you said about marginalised histories is really important because in that early literature about snapshot and family photography in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a strong feminist aspect because these were domestic lives that had rarely been accounted for. Domestic history was widely acknowledged, among people writing about it, as an overlooked category. The home, the domestic environment, and the domestic materials were mostly compiled and kept by women. So the family album is often associated with mothers keeping memories of the family. Of course, that's highly ideological in what that person gets to say about the family and how they get to kind of memorialise the family. But I think there was a strong inflection of feminist practice in that early scholarly work on family photography, which was really important for filling out an overlooked part of history.

And also, in terms of class, especially in Britain, a lot of the scholarly discussion was about what social historians call ‘history from below’. It was about categories of people whose stories weren't getting recorded because they didn't have access to wealth and fame, and they didn't have a platform until the 1970s, when social historians started recording the ordinary everyday lives of people from quite humble backgrounds. But I think now there's a second wave of practice, and that has to do with recording other kinds of families and their photographs. So families that are non-nuclear, families that are multidimensional in terms of sexuality or ethnicity. There's quite a lot of work still to be done to bring that material to prominence and also to develop a body of theory about it. And so I think the interesting new work happening at the moment is looking at migrant family albums. It's looking at family albums of non-heteronormative sexuality and family albums of people who are not white and not from the western northern hemisphere. There's still a lot of work to be done in its collecting and in its interpretation.

In his earliest texts, Professor Batchen argued for using the phrase vernacular photography, and now he says the general term photography is better to be used to describe these images. But there are several other phrases in circulation, such as banal imaging, everyday imaging, ordinary imaging, the family, the found, and social photography, just to mention some of them. Which of these terms gives the best understanding of this huge and almost impossible-to-categorise body of work? What is the best way to describe this whole area of image-making?

It's a great question. Some of those terms are utilitarian terms, and they do help people grasp what it is that you're doing, but some of the terms are complex and problematic. When I talk about what I do to somebody who is familiar with the literature and the scene, I will say, "well, I'm kind of doing vernacular photography", and then I try and debunk what I'm doing because, personally, I've never liked the term vernacular. I think it's hierarchical. I know it was brought in to give credit and merit to a category of photography that was at the time overlooked. But it was always an issue because it positions the photographs that I think are interesting against art photographs - and art photographs are really in the minority, rather than the other way around.

Some really interesting stuff has come out very recently about the root of the term vernacular, observing that the origin of the term has roots in a term for enslavement. So vernacular is meant to be a working term; it's meant to be utilitarian, something that can be put to work to sort of do the task in hand. But it's strongly associated with verna, which is a term that means slave. So as part of decolonial practices, it becomes really problematic, because not only is the vernacular a hierarchy within photography, but it's a hierarchy of people that's based on power and ownership. Because photography is so infused with all those power relationships, about who has the right to be seen, who holds the camera, who gets the right to circulate those images, who's got the right to consent, and so on, I think that's a compelling reason to stop using it.
Then it is a complex task to find something that fits instead.

Elizabeth Edwards, whose work I admire (and I'm very influenced by her thinking because she was my Ph.D. supervisor), was the first person who I heard talking about ‘majority photography’. I didn't use the term in my own work when I wrote the book titled Mass Photography: Collective Histories of Everyday Life because I was talking about a British-based collection. And although it wasn't a hugely privileged collection, because it was seeking to attract ordinary people taking photographs of everyday life, it still wasn't something that fitted with the way that the majority term was used in relation to the majority world. That's often taking a view that decentralises Europe, the Western world, or Euro-America. So I didn't feel that it was quite right to use with a British-based photography collection.

I like the term mass photography for two reasons. One, because popular photography is a mass practice that is often treated as a minority practice. So if you're using the term vernacular, it's positioning this photographic practice outside of the art world and making it other, smaller, and separate. I thought mass photography better represented its popularity and reach. But I also liked it because I was working with an enormous body of images for my PhD, and 55,000 photographs seemed like a mass of photographs. So I felt it had some kind of double use.
And in fact, I found it useful again. In 2021 I wrote an essay for a book called Photography Off the Scale. I felt like one of the key debates that I mentioned at the outset – about the sheer quantity and intensity of images circulating in the present day – is what's making what you're calling paper-based photography look different, retrospectively. The content of the book offers different ways for considering photographic masses, so I used the term mass photography again. I was really pleased that Tomáš Dvořák and Jussi Parikka created this book because I have none of the digital tech tools in my mentality or in my toolkit to do the stuff about digital practice.

Could you please tell me how you interpret the notion of mass photography?

I've held it at arm's length at times because I think ideas of ‘the mass’, especially in relation to concepts of mass culture, are often quite denigrating. People sometimes position the idea of ‘the mass’ as a body of people who are the opposite of the elite. So as it is mentioned in The Intellectuals And The Masses, the famous John Carey book about how structures of modernism and structures of art were based on a sense of elitism, the mass was seen to be this unthinking body of people who could all be homogenised together. And great generalisations could then be made about what ‘the man in the street’ or the apparently uncritical, unthinking mass might think about any given subject. In Britain, as well, because we're hung up and strung up on class hierarchies, the mass has often been people who are problematically perceived to be uneducated, people who are perceived to be uncritical. So although I've got problems with how that concept of the mass as a body of people has emerged, I think there's been a whole group of theorists and thinkers way before me who have done a lot of really useful unpacking of that term and also who've up-ended that term. 

And I thought it was quite useful for thinking about how, if you look at something from a great distance, you often overgeneralize about what you're looking at because you're looking at such a distance, you can see all these things as a homogenous group. But the closer you get and the deeper you get, the more detailed and more focused you get, every mass is always made up of a set of individual practices, and that applies to people as much as it applies to photography. So I found that really useful for thinking about what individual photographs in a massive archive might mean and how we might try to theorise a huge practice that is too big to get our heads around and an enormous amount of photographs that are too big to handle. I like the fact that they're all made up of individual viewpoints, individual practices, and individual people. And so I wanted to play with that tension between the individual and the mass.

My feeling is that mass photography is not something to be scared of because it's just individual people making individual contributions. And if we look closely and slowly, we see these deep stories that you don't see if you just look from above.
I can't claim to have come up with a theory that would work for every single archive. But for me, it worked really well with the project that I was working on. It really helped me to not dehumanise the human subjects who were taking the photographs. I've noticed in photographic theory that some people are incredibly dismissive of amateur photographers, calling them unthinking and implying that they are thoughtless, as if only professional photographers or professional artists think carefully about the photographs they take. To those critics, everyone else is merely pressing a button with no thought about what it means or what it's for. And of course, when you look at the photographs and talk to people about their photographs, no matter who they are, they're really invested in photographic stories, meanings, experiences, and values. So I found it useful for unpacking some of those overgeneralizations as well. 

When do you think it is appropriate to use the term found photography?

There are big differences in what you might call a found photograph. That's an artistic term that comes out of artistic practice. There’s a big difference between a found photograph and a family album that has been compiled and given to an archive, for example.
As I've mentioned, my partner works in the second-hand trade, and people buy photographs from circuits that he has been involved in; sometime they consider these to be found photographs, or photographs without known origin. But I see very clearly that he knows exactly the person whose house that album or that photograph came from. Sometimes it has just being cleared out of that person's house a week before. That person may have only died a month before. It turns up in a flea market, or it turns up at a car boot sale, or somewhere else, and people buy it, and they imagine romantically that it's this orphaned photograph that is entirely without origin. When people say, "I found it", or "it's  a found photograph", or "it's an anonymous photograph", it's only that because they want it to be that, because it's more romantic that way than knowing that it belonged to this person, that place, and so on. That would add inconvenient reality to a potent fantasy.

Unsorted box of prints in the Mass Observation Archive, containing some of the 55,000 photographs submitted to the 1987 One Day for Life project (the subject of Annebelle’s PhD and her first book, Mass Photography: Collective Histories of Everyday Life)

When we think about vernacular photography or mass imaging, we create these different units for the photographs: the collection, the archive, the album, etc. But when we look at the individual images, there is a question that emerges from the art historical perspective: are there masterpieces, or can we even use that term when talking about vernacular photographs?

How the image looks really matters if all of the other information is missing about who took it, where and why. One way that value has been ascribed to vernacular photography by some collectors is to point out how fantastic some of the images are visually. The idea of accidental masterpieces that can be found in the rubbish dump has been something that's had a strong allure for some curators and some collectors who have put together snapshot collections and snapshot exhibitions. Snapshot is another term we should critique, but I'm using it here for convenience. These collectors and curators put together everyday photographs by amateurs, and they've shown how these photographs can stand up to aesthetic scrutiny next to those of celebrated photographers. So there has been an accidental masterpiece approach to vernacular photography, which I think has its merits and is good for engaging the public. I think this approach can serve a function; it can inscribe value.

But I've often taken a perspective that is not so much about the beautiful photograph or the inspiring image. And it's more to do with the emotional and social value that gets ascribed to a thing. And that might be a photograph where you can barely make out the subject, but it might be somebody's most precious photograph, or a photograph that was really pivotal to someone narrating an experience in their life that was really transformative, or it might be a photograph that doesn't even exist in someone's possession, but it's this really powerful kind of psychic image that someone's got in their head.

I'm more interested in the stories, the experiences, the memories, and the emotions surrounding photographs than I am in what they look like. Obviously, what they look like matters, but I think it's maybe not the most important thing. I've become very interested in photographic materiality, as have many photographic historians in recent years, because that often shows how a photograph has been used, how it's travelled, how it's been handled. And sometimes what that photo means to somebody isn't actually in the frame. It's in the things that happened before or after, or the journeys that that photograph has been on.

Recently, I was talking about photography with a colleague, Beth Marsden, who is researching First Nations people in Australia who were forcibly separated from their children. And she spoke about a woman that she'd met who had one photograph of her daughter, who'd been forcibly taken from the family. And she had kept that photograph in her brassiere for over 20 years. I found that really profound without having even seen the photograph. And anyway, if you're going to put a photograph in your bra for 20 years, there's going to be almost nothing left of that image. It's going to be really battered and bruised, and it's more to do with the story that was invested in that thing, that photograph as a vestige of that relationship. So I find that more powerful than looking at the images themselves, I think.

Stephen Pinkerton, Box 27, One Day for Life archive (c) Search 88 Cancer Trust, used with kind permission of the Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex

When thinking of photography as art, we often play favourites but I'm really curious if you have any vernacular photograph that you can call your favourite. 

I do. It's from my book titled Mass Photography: Collective Histories of Everyday Life, but I've actually used it in two of my books now; that's how much I value it. I don't know whether there is an academic taboo about using an image twice! It's a photograph that someone, a contributor called Stephen Pinkerton, sent into the One Day for Life competition in 1987, which resulted in the archive of 55,000 photographs that was at the heart of my PhD. This photograph is meant to be a portrait, but somebody accidentally put their finger in front of the lens, and then when the print came back from the processor, all you can see is the person's feet. And then it's got a quality control sticker that the photo processor has applied, which was quite a common practice in the 1980s. If you got your film commercially processed in a lab in Britain, this was a method to tell you what was technically wrong with your photograph. It was partly an economic practice on the side of the laboratories because it meant that people couldn't say "you made a mistake, therefore I want my money back". By putting these stickers on photographs the laboratories could say: "no actually this is your error, not ours". But it was often a rude and personal intervention. 

What really amused me about this photograph was the fact that it was entered into a competition about amateur photography. There was somebody who had gone through all of the photographs that they'd taken and picked out this one and entered it into a competition because they had a meta-awareness of what the competition was about. It was trying to capture something that spoke about amateur photography, and in this context, it was really fascinating. Out of all of the 55,000 photographs that I looked at, this was the lead image for me because it spoke to me about the self-consciousness and awareness of the amateur photographer rather than this unthinking button-pressing type figure we often hear about.

I’ve actually used this photograph in my new book titled More Than A Snapshot: A Visual History of Photo Wallets, which was just published this summer. Actually, it is the only photograph in the whole book, as the book is about photo wallets not photographs; it is about the photographic industry’s ephemera. That shows how significant this particular photograph is to me.

Print wallets from Annebella Pollen’s book titled More Than A Snapshot: A Visual History of Photo Wallets published by Four Corners Books in 2023

There is a question that always pops up when I face vernacular photographs in exhibitions: can we really show these images that were created for a small audience to be seen by a wider audience?

It is really important as a researcher and as a curator to ask that question. And it's one that's often best answered on a case-by-case basis because it's often to do with the conditions of production of the original material, and then how it's circulated afterwards, and what the kind of conditions are about whether that material went into a public archive, and what sort of agreements were put in place when that sort of stuff was deposited. Or if it's from a personal collection, what kind of agreement was made between the person who took it or who owns it and the person who's exhibiting it.

I think it is a challenge. If we're talking about family photographs in family albums, they were made to be seen by a really small audience. There was no idea that they would ever be published in a book or circulated on a website. It's so unimaginable that most of the time, it hasn't been thought of. Even if there are permission agreements in place, historically, they're normally a really flimsy bit of paper with a couple of things that don't stand up to present-day scrutiny about publication and ethics. Nowadays there are all sorts of things about data regulation, the right to refuse, and so on. So it is not always possible to reverse engineer the present day model backwards into history. But I think sometimes you have to make a call about the material and the sensitivity of that material. Obviously, if there are sexual images, images meant for private consumption, and images of people who weren’t able to consent, those need to be treated with extra care.

You're probably aware that there's a recent case in America, against Harvard University and the Peabody Museum, made by the descendant of some photographed enslaved black people. Tamara Lanier, the descendant, disputed that her ancestors, Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, could have ever consented to have their nude daguerreotype taken in 1850 by the white photographer Louis Agassiz because they didn't have the sort of citizen’s right to consent because they weren't free people. Photographic theorist Ariella Azoulay has written very powerfully about these power imbalances in an essay called The Captive Photograph. And, as another example, some people have very extreme views about how a photograph of a violent scene, for example, should never be reproduced because it symbolically reproduces the violence. Some other people don't hold that view, and think a photograph’s informational content is always worth showing if it is interpreted well.

Quoting Miklós Tamási, founder of Fortepan on how he chooses what to illustrate with a photograph: "Intimate aggression, intimate hostility, or intimate villainy are characteristically absent from Fortepan, whereas I always let through everything bad that was created by the system and not the individual." There may be stories that are better illustrated with words.

I went to a workshop recently. It was an event between the University of Oxford and the School of Political Sciences in Paris. There were historians from both institutions and a few invited others, including me, talking about the different ways that we approach and interpret visual sources. Several of those historians were historians of the Second World War, specifically of the Holocaust. And they had anonymous albums as parts of their study with trophy photographs of soldiers and photographs of corpses. There was a lot of discussion about the way in which those photographs might be reproduced. Obviously, these are people who are interpreting that material very carefully. In that particular group, there was a feeling that it was important to acknowledge that those things exist and to do the work of interpretation and analysis. Whether you need to then put these photographs on the cover of the book is a different debate. But I've had to make that decision myself about what to show and what not to show when I haven't been able to ask people. And I've often thought through it on the level of the individual image.

Uncredited photographer, “Children at Pinehurst School”, Sun Bathing Review, Summer 1933, p. 13. Courtesy of Hawk Editorial Ltd, publisher of H&E Naturist magazine. Reproduced in Annebella Pollen, Nudism in a Cold Climate: The Visual Culture of Naturists in Mid-20th-Century Britain (Atelier Editions, 2021), p. 81.

For example, when I wrote my 2021 book about nudism, titled Nudism in a Cold Climate, I found that there were many archival images of naked children who were involved in historic nudist cultures. There was an educational theory in the 1920s that children had a kind of natural nudity because they were closer to nature. And so to photograph children naked in nature was to photograph a kind of romantic ideal. Of course, we've got a very different attitude now toward images of naked children based on safeguarding. Often the photographers were unnamed, and those children in the photographs may no longer be around because these photographs were taken in the 1920s and 1930s, and they are also almost impossible to identify with no names attached. They could never have given consent because they are under the age of consent, but probably at the time no one even thought to ask them. So I had a discussion with the publisher about whether or not to include them. And we decided that we wanted to include them because they're a really important part of the story, but we chose the photographs very carefully. We chose the ones where there were no obvious genitalia or anything that was explicit or exploitative. But I felt personally that it's really important to show that culture because if it were removed, you could get an artificial view of a historical culture that was centred around families. But it's a very contentious thing: what to show and what not to show. And who to ask when there's no one to directly ask. I don't think I've got a definitive answer, except that I think it's really important to think it through slowly and carefully on a case-by-case basis.

Annebella Pollen's newest book is titled More Than A Snapshot: A Visual History of Photo Wallets and was published by Four Corner Books. The book is available via their webshop here!

Annebella Pollen is one of our speakers at Talks on everyday imaging – the analogue and digital realm of the vernacular event in Budapest on 2 November. 

Here you can find out more about eidolon's talk series!

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