The Secrets of the Snapshot
By Tyler Dean
A memorable snapshot begins with an impulse. In the moment the image is captured, both photographer and knowing subject experience a combination of feelings: fear and love, apprehension and acquiescence. The candid photograph’s capacity to shed new light on even the most familiar face is revealed in Artists Unframed, a book by Merry Foresta of rare snapshots from the personal lives of artists including Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns.
The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do. Andy Warhol
Fear was a natural response to the earliest “snapshots,” which were defined as a literal shot, taken without careful aim, from behind the barrel of a loaded gun. The arrival of Eastman Kodak’s Brownie camera in 1900 led to the more lovable meaning, as the snapshot became synonymous with an unframed memory, an intimate, enduring glimpse of a moment in time.
With the advent of a new, informal approach to image-making, photographers and their subjects joined together to chronicle the quotidian. In the early days, moments taking snapshots passed with minimal interruption, and once captured, images would lie dormant inside their boxy apparatus, later finding their way into leather-bound albums or perhaps a box beneath the bed.
While fear and love remained at the core of the snapshot, new impulses emerged: the motivation to serve the self, the motivation to serve the tribe, and the motivation to serve the ego. The snapshot taken for oneself may reinforce a memory or trigger feelings of nostalgia; the snapshot captured for the tribe can breed inspiration, shared knowledge, and perspective.
Photography is like diamond cutting. If you miss, you miss. You wait until life is in the frame, then you have the permission to click. I like the adventure of waiting until the whole frame is full. Robert Rauschenberg
Ego was a prevalent motive in the most primitive portraiture, a kind of self-exaltation that once covered the walls of caves and temples and now lives on in the ubiquitous selfie. Fortunately for the photographer, the snapshot that begins with noble motivations retains its power today, as a vehicle for reflection and connection.
When considering the role of feeling in the snapshot, it is also important to be mindful of contrast. Both within and among images, emotional contrast is strengthened by visual contrast: pale expanses set aflame by saturated darks, elation magnified by undertones of sorrow, and pain tempered by comfort.
Beyond the extremes of hue and emotion, the grey area of the snapshot is where we uncover the most faithful reproduction of human experience. In a moment spent in togetherness, loss may loom; in a moment of darkness, a powerful bond may bring a kind of light. Behind the fibers and pixels of snapshots are secrets known only to those who lived them; what remains, remains unframed.
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