The Edward Steichen Photography Galleries in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art remain a shrine to its late curator John Szarkowski’s vision of the history of art photography. It may be true that on occasion anonymous images, usually from photography’s early history, sneak onto its hallowed walls. But mostly, the ever-shifting galleries display a single image per artist, reflecting a coherent, even canonic, overview of the medium—from Daguerre and Fox Talbot, to its more recently anointed artists, Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman (the subject of a current MoMA retrospective). So, it was surprising to find on a recent visit that one wall held nearly a dozen closely abutted frames, each containing a number of small photos loosely arranged by subject; not only were all of the photos anonymous, but they were definitely taken in a style that has come to be called “the snapshot aesthetic.”
There have been a number of recent books that have explored the role of the anonymous, amateur snapshot (almost always portraits) as a barometer of American social mores; there was also a major 2007 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, the exhibition catalog containing about 250 photos.
Despite the growing attention of scholars shaping photography as an academic discipline, it remains essentially a demotic medium.
Since Kodak introduced the Brownie box camera in 1900, until today’s “point and shoot” digital wonders, our populist history has been documented in the many millions of family photo albums that are passed from generation to generation. Along the way, some of these photos become literally unhinged from their albums and narrative context and are reborn as “anonymous” images. There are photo collectors who gravitate to these spontaneous amateur portraits, building new narratives as they bring images of widely different people together. One of these collectors is Peter J. Cohen who recently donated hundreds of such photos to the Art Institute of Chicago. They are portraits of three women and are the subject of a recent exhibition and book titled The Three Graces. The installation contains over 500 photos, about 135 being pictured in the notebook sized catalog.
The entire exhibition can be seen in thumbnails on the Art Institute website:
The title “The Three Graces” comes from a classical era sculpture theme that remains vital in art today. Originally identified with the Greek muses Aglaia, Euphrosyne, and Thalia (beauty, charm, grace) it has come to be identified with depictions of three related women and has thus served as an image of the evolving nature of identity and friendship among women since the early days of photography.
I came across the catalog of the Art Institute exhibition last month while browsing in the atrium bookstore of MoMA. Later, while walking through Central Park, headed back to my apartment, I saw a Pedi-cab carrying three women. The driver stopped to point out a landmark building along Central Park South. I walked over and asked the trio if I could take their picture with my iPhone, explaining that seeing them huddled on the bench seat with a flower print comforter over their laps, I got the idea to do a blog essay inspired by the catalog snapshots. Once I showed them the catalog they became enthusiastic. Here is the photo.
They are from Toronto, on a midwinter holiday in Manhattan, enjoying a rare warmish day in the open air. Walking further on, I recalled the Robert Altman film from 1977, 3 Women, on which I had been Chuck Rosher’s camera operator, on my first-ever anamorphic film; the movie was shot with the then still new, first generation Panaflex camera. The dialogue was written and improvised by the actresses Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Janice Rule and based on a dream by Altman. It is one of those 70s films that are emblematic of a looser, long lost time in Hollywood cinema history.
I began to think about the theme of three women in my actual, not just in my cinematic life. I am married to the youngest of three sisters, each one extraordinarily engaged in the world. I joke that my wife, Carol, is the least educated of the three. She was a Fulbright scholar with merely a master’s degree in French, while Betty and Charlene hold doctorates, with distinguished careers in higher education. Betty is also a several times published novelist. Carol, a renowned film editor, is an indefatigable hiker; she and Betty, an octogenarian, last year walked their third leg of the French/Spanish Santiago Campostella medieval pilgrimage trail, some 300 plus kilometers.
Shortly after sending me this recently taken photo, Betty found a very old one from the family archives. Betty has written a history of the family which, in fact, is also a history of Oklahoma: from before the late 19th century land rush, through the oil boom of the 20s (the family lived in Earlsboro, site of the first gushers), to the forming of the state’s political/social identity, from Will Rogers liberal, agrarian populism to the Christian evangelical conservatism of today.
That yellowing photo is also of three sisters, a formal studio portrait taken back when Oklahoma was still Indian Territory.
Here is the explanatory text Betty sent:
[This is a photo] of our great-grandmother Ingram (Elvira Smoot Ingram, center) with the two sisters she grew up with–on the left, as we face the photograph, Matilda Smoot Brown, and on the right, Nancy Smoot Ingram. It was probably made around 1895 or 1896. I thought you might like to see it. The three of them were, I think, close in the same way that Charlene and Carol and I are.
I began to think about the special quality of the intimacy of three sisters, or of three women friends, a bond perhaps richer than what most men share. Such “distaff” relationships may be more expansive than the intimate bonding of two sisters, especially the hermetic one of twins. The visual motif of the triangle, often seen in posed photos of three women transmits a design stability. The same triad motif in art photography also has a special fascination. Consider its frequency in the photography of Diane Arbus, as in her famous image of triplets:
Or of three circus ballerinas
Of all the art photographers avidly sought by collectors, it is Diane Arbus who best captures an immediacy and everydayness in her subjects— a quality that is rooted in her work, one that evokes the heart of the “snapshot aesthetic.”
Michal Raz-Russo’s introduction to the exhibition catalog sees the rise of the snapshot in American social mores linked to Kodak’s introduction of the easy to use Brownie camera, but also to the seductive power of the “Kodak Girl” advertising begun in 1893.
Russo quotes cultural historian Nancy Martha West who defines the style and fashion of these ads and that of the Gibson Girl with her willowy hourglass figure as lures that influenced the American woman’s ready embrace of photography. The snapshot became a quick record of good friends and good times and a quick marker of a fleeting event. It is no accident that it made a pointed appeal to women, who were usually custodians of their family history. And it is no accident that as women’s roles evolved throughout the 20th century, snapshots of women friends became a trope of their evolving societal prominence.
As the middle class found more leisure time as a result of its growing wealth, it was inevitable that fashion, role playing (what Barthes calls “posing”) would become a key part of the photo record. Most of the photos in this exhibition have no description or text to help decode them. In digital terms, it’s as if the metadata that gives them a sense of time and place has been erased. Even fragmentary notes written in the margins are more provocative than revealing— such as this one:
Reflecting the theme of leisure time, many of the snapshots show women at the beach or lakeside in bathing attire.
Others reflect a sense of role play that comes with this changing sense of self-identity:
Or of gender:
Or are surreal, like this snapshot of a trio in a doghouse, an image that begs for some broader context for the viewer.
During the Second World War, the three Andrew Sisters were as much an American icon as Betty Grable’s legs.
Propaganda photos of the three singers dressed in military garb inspired legions of women to emulate their poses and patriotism. There are several such images in the “Three Graces” exhibition.
One of the most charming photos, full of intimacy and sentiment, closely evokes the mood of the classical Graces, the long drape of their skirts evoking a strong columnar line.
While it is this next photo, with each of the three figures looking in different places (one of whom is turned away from us as if in emulation of the classical model) that most seems to attract us into their intimate moment, caught in the flux of time.
And this next one of three women, hands linked around a column, like Maenads in an Attic pottery frieze.
One of the most obvious signs of leisure class wealth during the 30s was the motorcar. Many of the exhibition images display women in or around an automobile. Two photos reflect not just the wardrobe of the season but also present a sense of self that bespeaks opposite social and sexual roles.
One photo it would be difficult to imagine in the 30s USA comes, in fact, from Berlin in the era of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad celebration of body freedom. Three women bask in the warm sun, their white undergarments a glowing contrast to the enveloping dark lawn. Their clothes are casually slung into a pile next to them. This poetic image, with the woman on the far left not quite looking into camera, has a voyeuristic feel, a bit reminiscent of Manet’s painting “Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe.”
One of the most enigmatic of all the photos shows three young women clutching the trunk of a leafless tree. The uppermost woman seems to be the most delighted, while the one at the bottom is impassive. How would Roland Barthes “read” this image? Where is the hidden “punctum,” that small detail that always seems to command his attention?
I was reminded of the photo that Betty used as the cover for her family history: a charming image of her mother and two aunts perched on a horizontal branch, their mother hovering below.
I have found this window into an American past through the “snapshot” exhibition of “The Three Graces” more than slightly influenced by my ongoing effort to read Roland Barthes’ dense yet strangely autobiographical essay “Camera Lucida.” So far, it has been for me a quixotic venture begun and stalled several times. On one hand, the essay is his attempt to explain as a philosopher what it is about a photographic image that so grabs our attention, gets under our skin, even sparking an intense personal reverie (a kind of photographic Proustian Madeline). This is a state of reverie often claimed by images that do not aspire to the level of conscious art: the vernacular photo, the snapshot. On the other hand, Barthes’ essay is also a deeply felt soliloquy, a reverie on the death of his mother, and how one photo of her as a five year old seems to encapsulate for him her very being, and by extension, the sense of his adult self rooted in her. He refuses to include this photograph in the book; to an outside viewer, he writes that it could have no meaning.
This leads me back to further consideration of anonymous snapshot photos, either as collected in books, hung on museum walls, or laid out on a rickety table at a Saturday swap meet. Captioned photos, like the ones we find in news magazines or on tony gallery walls, document an event’s time, place, and subject. The anonymous snapshot, however, is haunting for us because it is ineffable. It is deracinated, hovering somewhere between the ephemeral moment it captures and its locking of memory in time. These anonymous photographs offer an elusive series of conjectures, of stories that have forever escaped us, and of the subjects they so lovingly hold in thrall.
Next: The Strandbeests of Theo Jansen