Vernacular Photography (aka Snapshots): Time Slices of a Different Era

There’s just something about a snapshot from yesteryear, with its ubiquitous white border, its black and white tone (and sometimes color) in sizes rather on the small size. Many of these photographs were 3×4″ or smaller.

Below is a gallery of photos selected from a case full of pictures purchased at a flea market that included snapshots, albums, tintypes, cabinet cards, negatives and even color 4×6″ borderless glossy prints. The 4×6″ prints are the latest of the bunch, the size film processors went to after color film became more popular in the 1980s and 1990s.

And it’s too much–4×6″ prints are just too big, they no longer feel like snapshots, but rather like photo prints that are missing their frame. Without a border, they feel unfinished.

Plus, they are too big to carry around.

I collect old snapshots from 1880-1970, and by the 1970s there were some color prints that came with borders but once borderless prints came out, snapshots lost their charm, for me.

To view these photographs, each one easily held in the palm of your hand, we can imagine the people who kept them in albums and wallets, ready to show them to their friends when they ventured out for dinner or drinks, bowling or billiards. They were small works of art, and still are.

Vernacular photography is, as stated by the online dictionary at “The creation of photographs that take everyday life and common things as subjects. Examples of vernacular photographs include travel and vacation photos, family snapshots, photos of friends, class portraits, identification photographs, and photo-booth images. Vernacular photographs are types of accidental art, in that they often are unintentionally artistic.”

Snapshots I see today rarely resonate with me. Maybe there are too many of them, or perhaps it takes the element of time to make them valuable and appreciated. Many of the snapshots in my collection are 100 years old or more.

Somehow the digital jpeg on Facebook or sent to my phone just doesn’t feel special like these photographs.

But the truly magical thing for me is the light that created these photograph. The light that was falling on these people burned an image on a silver-based, light-sensitive film to make this negative. That light that was captured and stays on this negative is my proof–this film was in the photographer’s hands, this photo was made with light that was there at that time when the photograph was made.

This snapshot is perhaps a one-of-a-kind, the only print that exists from that photographic session. And it exists forever if it doesn’t get tossed, lost, or destroyed in a fire or flood. It’s made it so far.

As a result of these prints, these people never die. They go on living in stories like this one, as we look back to them, peering through the tunnel of time to see where they went, what they did. What a wonderful gift the snapshot is.

What a treat to make a something “unintentionally artistic”.

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4 thoughts on “Vernacular Photography (aka Snapshots): Time Slices of a Different Era

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  1. I was a boy as the bordered-print era came to an end. My first ever roll of film, Kodacolor II in 127 size in a Brownie, was printed with borders. Here’s a scan of one:

    I have only 3 or 4 prints from that roll still — the children I photographed all begged for the prints when I showed them, and I gave them to the children in them. I was 9!

    Nobody begs for an iPhone snap these days.

    I’d like to point out that my prints from that roll all still look very good, only slightly browned with time. When I sent my film out mail order to one of the cheap labs, those prints all faded and turned brown and look terrible today. Thankfully, I still have every negative I ever shot and could have them reprinted.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I thought I had replied, but now I don’t see it. So, here goes again, Jim.

    I love that photo of you and your friends, I think it looks familiar, maybe I’ve seen it on your blog. So many people wish they had snapshots of themselves as youngsters with friends including the photojournalist David Burnett, who says while he’s traveled the world photographing news, he wishes he had those of him and his friends just sitting around. I’m glad you do–I don’t even of myself and my friends.

    I believe that people took better photos back in the 1970s-1990s than most know, many as good as they’re getting from their cell phones. Because they had the best cameras, the best film, the best trips planned, the best scenery, but then ran it through the worst lab with poor colors and of course they blamed themselves.

    “I supposed I need a new camera.” No, you don’t, you just need good processing. (I always wondered if the camera companies liked their assumption that it was the camera they needed to replace.)

    Back when I lived in NJ, a neighbor said she couldn’t take a photograph to save her life, except for one roll of film of hers that was good. It had inadvertently got dropped into the Princeton University’s film batch headed to their pro lab, and that was the only one with photos she liked. I explained it was the processing that made the difference. She had never made the connection.

    I know there are wonderful negatives lying around in homes that would make great photographs if they were just properly printed. Like you can do with those negatives you have, fortunately.

    Thanks for the comment, Jim.


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