Sunday, December 29, 2013

Is Snapshot Photography Art?

A snapshot is popularly defined as a photograph that is "shot" spontaneously and quickly, most often without artistic or journalistic intent. Since 1888, when George Eastman introduced the Kodak camera and roll film, the snapshot has not only changed everyday life and memory; it has also changed the history of fine art photography. Art photographers from Jacques-Henri Lartigue to Nan Goldin have borrowed the snapshot look as a stylistic manner. It retains a certain formal fascination to this day.
It would be easy to think that snapshot photography is just professional photography dumbed way down for mass consumption. Its crudity is in fact pretty striking. The equipment is relatively crummy, and the pictures are taken relatively casually. So maybe snapshots are what you get if you take some desirable qualities away from professional photos.

That's wrong, though. Snapshot photography is a form of its own. It has some things that professional photography doesn't have. That's because, casual and crummy as they may be, snapshots are taken for their own reasons and on their own occasions. Their approach to the world is different, not somehow inferior.

For example, snapshots permit a subjectivity that's completely out of bounds for regular documentary photography. A snapshooter does not feel the documentarian's quasi-scientific responsibility to show the world as it is, an objective world that doesn't have the camera itself stirring up trouble in it. The reason is that the snapshooter doesn't try to be outside anything. The snapshooter is someone immersed in life who just happens to be carrying a camera. The documentarian is a looker; the snapshooter is a liver. The documentary photographer records an event; the snapshooter is part of it. For the snapshooter, the taking of the picture is probably inseparable from a real-life relationship. So to say that you can’t intrude on others with your snapshot camera would amount to saying that you can’t intrude on others. It's not nice, perhaps, but you can do it.

A documentary photographer can't do it. Photos like these are very rare in straight photography.


Joel Rotenberg has been collecting found photos since about 1982 and selling them on eBay (as out.of.frame) since 2002. You can find his article on the found photo phenomenon at or follow him on his Tumblr page at This original article was published here.

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