The Value of the Snapshot & Prints With Borders

I miss the snapshot, those small photos that would get printed with their scalloped white-edge border. I often order prints of my own and always add a white border to the print, but it’s not the same as when it was done back in the 1950s, with the paper cut with a decorative edge.

I order a lot of prints, some that I gift to friends, some that I put into little frames and place in their homes for them to discover at a later time, and some that I keep and place in my own home. I even print some of my own negatives in my darkroom, photographs that I replace in frames to change up my “home gallery” show.

A few months ago, I picked up a pair of scallop-edge scissors so I could cut the edges of my borders to match what used to be the standard way of delivery. Is it just nostalgia that makes me want to recreate this way of printing photographs, or does the border signify something–a completion, a finishing?

To me, photographs with borders are snapshots, and there’s a long history on the albums full of these simple moments of time, 4×4″ or 3.5 x 5″, collected by families and placed into books and photo albums, often with stick-on corners. These were the holidays, the new car purchase photos, the vacation pics. Film was a luxury item and families usually only photographed the highlights.

The photographic prints they made in the 1990s grew to become 4×6″ and borderless. This was the new way. Order doubles at time of development and save! But to me, those prints need a photo frame because they look unfinished. They are the raw material to making a framed photograph. But without the white border, they can’t stand on their own.

This borderless photo feels unfinished, no way for presentation, but typical of what you see on the web.
Sometimes I’ll add a small border and make it ever so slightly grey, to stand out against the white of a computer screen.
This one is using an old snapshot frame and adding my photo onto it. This feels ready for presentation online for a story on snapshots. It conveys a feeling of a family photo, a candid snap.

Presentation is important to art. Just like the font of a menu at a fancy restaurant needs to be decorative, a Papyrus or Adobe Caslon Pro, if the owner wants to charge high prices (Times New Roman is saved for the diner). And if they put a line after the price instead of 99 cents — ‘$14-‘ vs ‘$13.99’, you know it’s going to be a quality dining experience. Please, place the linen napkin on your lap and sit up straight!

How to present our photos says a lot about them. I was working with a photographer in my mentoring program and the first thing I did was burn the edges to give them a finished look, to communicate that the viewer was in good hands of a quality storyteller.

That’s what the border does. Sometimes it’s an actual edge, sometimes it’s edge burning. In both cases, it shows the work in a way that I want it presented, with a little flourish that says the work is complete.

It’s a perception as an artist–that you are a master storyteller and you have something worthwhile to show, a strong story to tell.

The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978 by Sarah Greenough; Diane Waggoner; Sarah Kennel; Matthew S. Witkovsky - Hardcover - 2007 - from Book Beat (SKU: 000235)

If you like looking at history as told through snapshots, I recommend this book, The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978 – a wonderful look at the lives of Americans by the snapshots they made.

One thought on “The Value of the Snapshot & Prints With Borders

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  1. I usually add a grey border to my photographs in Lightroom before sending them out for 8×10 prints. It looks good, and it avoids the problem of the lab sometimes cutting off the edges of my photos. Now they just cut off a little bit of grey border when they are not careful.


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