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The Optimal Moment

On the Interest Toward Everyday Photography

by Róza Tekla Szilágyi

Recently, I read about how wonderful it was for the first train passengers to experience velocity and that the world, consequently, truly did open up to them. Yet, a medical journal in the 1860s referred to train travel as a wearying adventure for the eyes as much as for the brain. Why? Because, accustomed to walking and studying the horizon slowly, the gaze was almost shocked by the scenery rushing away in the image space delineated by the window frame, becoming a stream of images never to be explored in detail. Which provides us with a telling example of the extent to which visual and mental stimuli impact the ways to perceive the world. And it wasn’t even the awe of the first photographs or the spell of the first moving images, where we departed from to examine the relationship of 21st-century man to images.

Source: Horus Archives / Sándor Kardos

Today, a train ride is a walk in the park, and photos or moving images ceased to astound us; in fact, contemporary life is pervaded by the practice of perceiving or making images. The digital devices lying in our pockets and the social media applications running on them have not only turned image-making into a reflex, but developed, among the latest generations, a particularly strong awareness of photographic potential in everyday moments. The purpose of the ordinary gesture of taking a photo is no longer to document, but to communicate, to express. From photography being a magical new technology allowing for the documentation of the world, we have come to the point where not only is the world recordable, but the question of documentability partly determines our lives. It’s enough to think of the familiar scene of the birthday kid, blowing the candles on their birthday cake while surrounded by the phones of family members.

According to Henri Cartier-Bresson, the sole point of obtaining the technique of photography was to be able to share what one saw. Nowadays, we live in the age of banal image-making, since taking photos has become comically simple; anyone can snap pictures anytime. Remarkably, besides the interest in photos taken today, past-century vernacular photography is also drawing considerable attention. Vernacular photos are compiled into archives, and such archives (or selected images) are reinterpreted or remixed by fine artists; vernacular photography make its way into museum collections, and pictures originally taken for personal use are arranged into exhibitions. One Hungarian case is the Horus Archives, a vernacular photo collection established by cinematographer Sándor Kardos 30 years ago, comprising today around 1.5 million items. Intrigued by the spell of photography, Sándor Kardos started the archive as a pet-project, which grew into an inspiring endeavor in photo history, striving to rehabilitate memories either forgotten, or deleted by power. Fortepan, initially a one-man show by devoted collector Miklós Tamási and now a vast open-access vernacular photo collection, pursues the same idea; and it was the emergence of Fortepan that has pushed the door open. On the one hand, a variety of media outlets began using vernacular photos to illustrate articles, while on the other, vernacular photography became subject to artistic reinterpretations. The photo book Fortepan Masters – Collective Photography in the 20th Century by Szabolcs Barakonyi is made up exclusively of images from Fortepan, but an involvement with vernacular photography characterizes the works of other artists as well, such as Viktória Balogh, János Brückner, Mariann Csáky, Marcell Esterházy, Péter Forgács, Emese Góg, Csaba Nemes, or Kata Tranker.

Source: Horus Archives / Sándor Kardos

Categorizing 20th-century and contemporary everyday photos based on the questions who takes pictures, to whom, how often, and for what purpose, reveals significant differences; addressing them only requires a quick summary of the history of everyday photography, from cameras becoming widely used until the appearance of digital photography. To cite John Berger, photography became, in the 20th century, a community medium that could be used democratically. The popularity of compact cameras engendered an image-making reflex of a kind, while photojournalism contributed to the construction of the ability to face and “read” images.

As early as the 1880s, the Eastman Kodak Company undertook to make shooting and developing film as simple as possible. They put the first easy-to-handle models equipped with removable film rolls on the market, owners of which could simply post rolls to the company in order to receive the developed film or the processed prints. Not only did Kodak take technical knowledge—so far indispensable—out of the equation, they encouraged customers, with slogans (“Prove it with a Kodak,” or “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest”) and by selling empty photo albums, to exploit the opportunity to document. Even if, while cameras were increasingly easy to handle, one had to keep being frugal with film for many years to come. It was thanks to the race between digitalization and analog processes, that photo processing gradually became cheaper, and discount offers have proliferated. As a result, the final major chapter in analog photography’s fight against the digital was a period not of agony, but popularity and a deluge of photos. Owing to digital photography, everyday photography has by now become the most common subject of instant sharing, viewed today, by its nature, not on paper, but screens. Unlike what everyday photography used to mean as a tool of remembrance, its snapshot-like variant today is shaped by social media habits and device accessibility. Our latest images are the products of opportunity, and not the necessity to document. The decisive moment of image-making has been replaced by a reflex of sharing.

Source: Horus Archives / Sándor Kardos

The key to the elevated interest in vernacular photography today lies somewhere here. Since, as Nathan Jurgenson put in his The Social Photo, “That an old photo could survive as long as it did grants it an authority that the equivalent digital photo taken today may never achieve. Their sheer physicality—their weight, their smell, their tactility—take on new significance in the halation of glowing screens.”

Art history has, for long, marginalized the phenomenon of vernacular photographs and contemporary snapshots primarily taken by amateurs; mainly because theoreticians were busy either with dichotomies like amateur v. professional photographer, documentary v. artistic photo, analog v. digital technology, or with the propaganda use of photography. Vernacular photography has thus remained an unexplored field in modern perception. “Is it a good picture?” So goes the typical question of the academic discourse on photography, to which there is no sensible response in the case of most everyday photos. Why? Because with everyday photography, it would mean asking, Was it good, was it right, what the imagemaker intended to remember through the picture? To quote Jurgenson again, “everyday snapshot photography doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of textual analyses that artistic work typically receives. . . . the vast majority of people holding cameras have little interest in those professional norms or success metrics.”

Source: Fortepan / donor and author: Ákos Schermann

In 2007, András Bán wrote the following: “The vernacular photography discourse cannot really find its place or legitimacy among the changing disciplines of visuality, i.e., in the ‘visual studies’ field, primarily.” Even if art theory thinking, up until the wave of interest in recent years, mostly favored other kinds of images over vernacular photos, when the topic did surface occasionally, it brought an air of nostalgia. A shared experience; 19th-century vernacular photos evoke nostalgic feelings. Images, as documents in general, have a nostalgic effect by embalming their subjects. The history of the word nostalgy, its meaning changing through the years, is just as enchanting as that of vernacular photography. Originally meaning “to arrive home” and “pain” in Greek, the concept of nostalgia created in the 1680s concerned, for a long time, a potentially weakening and deadly medical condition that made people homesick. The connotation of a spiritual rather than physical experience was added to the word in the 19th century; also known today, this meaning may best be described as the present’s jealousy of the past. As the Russian–American cultural theoretician Svetlana Boym put it, nostalgia is a longing for a home that no longer exists or never existed in the first place. In addition to the seemingly natural feeling of nostalgia evoked by images of past ages, a subconscious awareness may also be at work of the possibility that this paper-based heritage is disappearing at this very instant; and we are, so to say, at the last moment when something can be salvaged from it. It is interesting to contrast this phenomenon with the existence of applications offering old-photo effects, which actually monetize the opportunity of nostalgia production; with the trend aimed to have photos in the digital space evoke their paper-based predecessors that, at the same time, they are about to entirely replace. Nowadays, displays of nostalgia connected to documentary practices strive to present, instead of the past, the present as a potential past of the future. According to Boris Groys, the century we live in is fundamentally different from previous centuries in one aspect: instead of either its past or future, the current society is mostly engaged with its present, the lived experience of its present.

Source: Fortepan / donor: Károly Krantz

From a reality where one life can include several careers and marriages, where the fabric of society is just being rearranged, it surely is alluring to look back at pictures chronicling our common past, which may explain the growing interest in vernacular photography. While, importantly, they do seem to render it possible to draw a true narrative from threads of personal histories, encountering mundane and humane situations also has a captivating power.

We belong to a generation whose members will leave behind hundreds or thousands of photos depicting them after their deaths, thanks to snapshots and social media; except, of course, those undertaking digital cleaning or using social media more consciously. From the previous century, by contrast, it is often only one surviving photograph that captures an entire life, if at all. How the pictures floating in the digital space will affect our social memory, should they persist, is a question for the future. What’s already certain, however, is that photographs are the most influential manifestations of past-century memory. In his essay collection Understanding a Photograph, John Berger speculates on what, before photography, may have fulfilled the documentary function a photo does today. He concludes that, unexpectedly, it was not writing, drawing, painting, or any other modes of representation, but memory. Yet, unlike memory, a photo by itself does not preserve meaning or carry a narrative; it merely presents a spectacle. Examining vernacular photography and the attention it receives, we should keep in mind that, unlike photos originally intended for a general audience, everyday photos in most cases are “read” while remaining in the context from which they were snatched by the camera. Such photos give us clues to memories still alive. What happens to these photographs, what mechanisms come into play, when they lose their original context and thus enter a wider public sphere? The motivation behind everyday photographs is to record for those close to me. They are means of storytelling that mediate traces of and the point of view of the narrator.

János Brückner, Kindergarten Carnival with Snowprincess, Captain, and Afro-Hungarian Boy in 1989, 2020, acrylic paint on canvas, 120 x 95 cm

“Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles,” wrote Susan Sontag. Everyday photographs, similarly to professional photos, capture a great many parallel situations, lives, moments. The birth of photography itself, too, was the result of a taxonomic gaze seeking to organize the world, as the zeitgeist—driven by the possibility to break down into comprehensible parts, and at once understand, life—fueled the discovery of recording with light. The classification and processing of unique particles of the world fully corresponds to today’s mentality of organizing, categorizing, and utilizing every piece of data. The renewed interest in vernacular photography may be in line with the current belief that it’s better to record the world, than to let it disappear. Viewing vernacular photos enables us to remember, learn, and to create a common knowledge base focused on our past; while processing them—with micro history in mind, connecting individual threads—allows us to build on the knowledge thus acquired. In one of his essays, the American critic Jonathan Crary argues that the birth of photography was made possible not only by the technological innovations of the time, the emerging notion of “cultural readiness” was also key in the process. Crary points out that the chemicals required to stabilize the camera obscura image had been available for almost a hundred years, when experiments actually got to the problem of conserving the photographic image and to the solution to the problem. Perhaps, in the process of collecting, viewing, and handling vernacular photos, we just got to a phase similar to what made photography conceivable. Maybe this is the moment when the fascination—sparked also by browsing and managing today’s digital photos—became widespread. After all, if the pictures we daily see of friends and Facebook acquaintances can function as easily readable messages, potentially breaking down language barriers, why shouldn’t vernacular photos be ready, too, to serve as messages, as a knowledge across languages as well as eras. We already have the methods, the technology, and the expertise needed for their preservation; the gaze it’s worth turning toward them is in the making.

Kata Tranker, Family Ruin, 2017, salt-flour dough, photo, 15 x 15 cm

(1) Nathan Jurgenson, The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media (London: Verso Books, 2019)
(2) András Bán, “Búcsú a privátfotótól (a képiség változó móduszai),” Lettre no. 64 (Spring 2007)
(3) Svetlana Boym: Nostalgia and Its Discontents. In: Hedgehog Review, 2007/2.
(4) John Berger, Understanding a Photograph (New York: Aperture, 2013)
(5) Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: RosettaBooks LLC, 2005)
(6) Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992)

The original Hungarian version of this article was published on Artmagazin Online.

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