Ubiquitous, candid and freighted with the weight of
human experience, snapshots persist where many other photographic trends and
technologies have come and gone. They appear on our fridges, walls, in our
wallets and purses. We shrink-wrap and frame them, or shove them in shoeboxes
under the bed. They are never far, and most importantly, they never cease
to draw us in with their familiar emotional undertow. Necessary fictions indeed.
In the past decade or so, snapshots have become a visual shorthand of sorts.
Browse the fiction shelves in any bookstore and you will find several book
covers adorned with blurry, scalloped edged snapshots. Simple and familiar
these informal poses and set-ups instantly evoke wider notions of human history,
memory, nostalgia, loss, family, childhood, innocence, relationships. Rich
terrain for novelists and artists alike.
The artists in The Found and the Familiar: Snapshots in Contemporary Canadian
Art - Sara Angelucci, Barbara Astman, Dean Baldwin, Chris Curreri, Max
Dean, Nancy Friedland, Clint Griffin, Vid Ingelevics, Germaine Koh, Adrienne
Lai and Nina Levitt - use what at first seems like a postmodern strategy.
They borrow and steal raw photographic imagery from family albums or garbage
bins. But the work they create from these newly discovered images builds on,
rather than takes apart, the visual and cultural codes of snapshots and the
rituals and candid moments they capture.
As the example of the Avedon family reveals, snapshots are more than simply
a record of what happened. Certainly, the camera records what we put before
the lens, but what goes unacknowledged is that we are highly selective about
what we deem worthy of a snapshot.
In his study of family snapshot albums, visual anthropologist Richard Chalfen
notes that the camera does (and does not) come out at remarkably consistent
times. Milestones (eg. first steps, first day of school, first car), birthdays,
vacations and family get-togethers provide prime opportunities for snapshot-making,
whereas funerals, sex and the workplace do not. There is a general absence
of dirt, blood, disarray (with the exception of the chaos of Christmas morning),
tears, anger and illness.2
Chalfen writes: "The snapshot rendition is best characterized as an expression
of conspicuous success, personal progress, and general happiness."3
In fact, he has calculated what portion of a persons life snapshots
represent. He writes: "... if we estimate that an average snapshot collection
consists of 3000 pictures (an estimate based on the total accumulation in
albums, drawers, boxes, wallets, etc.), and the average shutter speed of cameras
used to make these images was 1/100th of a second, we find that the total
collection represents thirty seconds of
accumulated life."4 We photograph the lives we want, and the
lives we want
to be remembered having.
Dean Baldwins mimicry in Stolen Photograph Composites (2002)
indicates that the visual language of snapshots is something we all understand.
His images are seamless digital recombinations of disparate elements from
many found snapshots. Taken as compositions, they are plausible, familiar.
Havent we all seen snaps of children playing in a kiddie pool or of
a relative sitting in a park with people milling in the background? Only the
large scale of Baldwins images and their presentation leave us to suspect
that they may not have been pulled directly from a family album.
What is this visual language? What is it about these images that we already
seem to know? And how is it that we readily build stories from their visual
Snapshots are, on one level, a visual record of "the good life,"
how to "do it right." They document the moments that we, as a culture,
agree are worthy of documentation and display. Chalfen explains: "Children
witness patterns of success, the accumulation of significant material culture,
and an array of appropriate role behaviours. Children internalize views of
past moments of achievement and happiness, with the unspoken expectation that
this pattern should be repeated. This agenda-setting function provides a model
of life with moments to strive toward, to brag about, and, in turn, to display
in a conspicuous pattern of home mode representation. In these ways, home
mode imagery contributes to the formation of a world view and ideology."5
Postmodern theory would also have us believe that all forms of photographic
representation are suspect, being based entirely on interpretation and subjectivity
and relative truths. "Photography is never innocent, but framed by ways
of representing that are always ideologically loaded," writes Tony Godfrey.6
And yet, something about snapshots keeps pulling us into the picture; we grapple
with their haunting familiarity and layered truths.
For the purposes of this exhibition, co-curator Jennifer Long and I have included
artists who use found images, often anonymous, and/or images culled from their
personal archives. We have widened our definition of the snapshot to include
not only the spontaneous images that aim to document the successes of life,
but also other official images found in the family record, such as school
portraits or passport photos. As viewers, our relationship to these other
photographs is the same. We search them too for clues to character, events,
Snapshots are also generally made with hand-held cameras on 35mm film. We
have again expanded our parameters to include works made from older source
images, produced in the same spirit as contemporary snaps, like Max Deans
Babbitt daguerreotype and Nina Levitts Alice Austen image from a glass-plate
Max Dean is perhaps the artist that has best understood and exploited our
relationship to snapshots. His mechanized installation As Yet Untitled
(1992-95) is the definitive example of our attachment to snapshots. Due
to prior exhibition commitments, we were not able to include the work here.
The work is composed of several clunky mechanical components: a robotic arm,
shredder and conveyor belt, two small tables and a pair of metal hands, mounted
on waist-high rods. The arm delicately selects one snapshot from a pile and
pivots slowly to show it to you. There is a short pause and you must make
a decision. Press on the hands and the snapshot will be placed in a stack
with other photos, saved. Do nothing and the arm will feed the snapshot to
the shredder, and the shreds will fall onto the conveyor belt that carries
them off to a pile, to oblivion with the other unlucky snaps. The arm moves
inexorably back to the first pile of snapshots and repeats the process.
Snapshots mean so much to us that it seems inconceivable to destroy them.
Lisa Gabrielle Mark writes: "Deans work asks you to make a conscious
choice to engage (or not), then watch the consequences unfold."7
Watching Deans machine shred snapshots can cause a physical reaction,
flinching, turning away.
For Avery Stranded (after Babbitt) (2000), Dean bases the work on an
1853 daguerreotype made by Babbitt in which a man is stranded on a rock in
the rapids above Niagara Falls for 20 hours. A rescue boat was finally able
to reach the rock, and as Avery was climbing into the boat, he slipped and
was carried over the falls. This outcome, however, is unknowable from the
image itself. Dean reinstates the narrative of which the image is but one
moment. As you step forward to view the piece, a motion detector built into
the frame registers your presence and Avery appears on the rock. Once you
step away, however, Avery disappears. We become not only witnesses, but responsible
for his death, for his being forgotten. There is no way to avoid Averys
death. It must take place because we cannot stand forever in front of the
image to keep him "alive."
For Dean Baldwin, the voyeurism involved in making Stolen Photograph Composites
left him feeling guilty. In his next project, he took some of his own snapshots,
left them in various public places, and documented the location. He hoped
that people would stumble across them and take them home, giving back some
of what he felt he had taken.
Germaine Koh certainly would have taken Baldwin up on his offer. Since 1992,
she has been collecting snapshots that she finds on the street. In Sightings
(1992-98), she turns these found snaps into postcards and sells them. On the
back of each one, she has noted where and when she found it. It would seem
controversial to profit from someone elses loss. At the same time, it
seems a logical solution for these images unmoored from their contexts: put
them back into circulation.
Joel Smith writes about Sightings: "To trace in imagination, a
snapshots progress through the stages of Kohs project ... is to
witness an inanimate objects full life-cycle of possibilities, as it
bears the brunt of desire, hope, clumsiness, indifference, wit, industry,
curiosity and forgetfulness. No doubt a browser and a digital image archive
can do many things to keep the past on life support, but they will never succeed
in looking quite so human as a boot-scraped scrap of paper does, drifting
across the windswept surface of the dustbin of history toward the quiet victory
of sheer persistence." 8
The practice of snapshot-making has persisted since the dawn of photography,
a tendency aided in part by camera company advertising and social expectations
that certain family events and rituals will be photographed. But it may also
be due, in part, to how we as viewers look at snapshots.
Marianne Hirschs concept of postmemory provides interesting clues for
snapshots persistence as a medium. She writes: "Postmemory is a
powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection
to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an
imaginative investment and creation."9 Postmemory is the way,
for example, a son could participate in and assume the memories of his parents
and of events that occurred before his birth. These memories are "delayed,
indirect, secondary" and snapshots play a large role in their creation
The "imaginative investment and creation" Hirsch refers to is certainly
at work in Vid Ingelevicss work Places of Repose: Stories of Displacement
(1990) and later in his related installation Alltagsgeschichten (some histories
of everyday life) (1996). For Places of Repose, Ingelevics papered
second-hand bureaus manufactured in the postwar period with snapshots, portraits
and documents from 1944-45, a time in which his mother and two aunts, refugees
from Latvia, were interned in displaced persons camps in Southern Germany.
The bureaus, denied their function as a place for clothes, now become places
to file memories for safekeeping and for preservation. Ingelevicss attempt
to visually represent this time in the womens lives is, and could only
ever be, a partial account, his own version. In fact, he emphasizes this aspect.
Blake Fitzpatrick writes: "In Places of Repose, images and texts
are montaged, projected, cut and taped to the point that the process of reconstruction
threatens the very intelligibility of the reconstructed text."11
While Hirsch deploys postmemory to describe memory transmission between a
familys generations, her concept could be applied to how we look at
any snapshot. When we look at a snapshot, whether we know the specifics of
its inception or not, we draw from a well of our own experience of photographing
and being photographed. We can imagine the circumstances in which a snapshot
was made, place ourselves there even. We identify with the process; we know
our own snapshots, have looked at those of others and made them ourselves.
Nancy Friedland digitally isolates arms, legs, and torsos from her class photos
against colour-block backgrounds in her series the pity of lost things
(2001-2002). From the gestures, the poses of the fragments she chose, we can
deduce that the source photograph is one of those group shots taken of each
class at the beginning of the school year. We can imagine the general composition
and make-up of the photograph: thirty or so students, placed in rows, first
row seated, the others standing, teacher at one side, a plaque propped in
the front to identify the class. We can imagine being photographed in such
a group. From this entry point into Friedlands images, we can see she
is employing abstraction to relay the imperfect nature of memory. She highlights
what gets lost, from pieces of clothing we grew out of to classmates we lost
Adrienne Lai gives eloquent form to the idea of remembering. Her piece Preserves
(1997) is a series of Mason jars filled with small stones, each with the fragment
of a snapshot, her mothers face for instance, transferred onto it, and
pickled with thyme. The stones grow mossy over time, the faces and memories
associated with them slowly obscured. Lais jars counter the idea that
memories are hermetically sealed, to remain unchanged until we recall them
Sara Angelucci, in her series Stillness (2002), pairs details from
black and white photographs from her familys archive with colour images
from a recent trip to Italy, her ancestral land. The colour shots are of plants
and flowers (her living, flourishing roots), market produce, trees, buildings.
They are vivid, lush, in contrast to the old, black and white photographs.
The visual reality of Angeluccis diptychs is a middle ground, a still
point, a resonance across generations and geography, where her past and her
In the series Bicycle Race (2002), Chris Curreri stitches over a face
in a crowd watching a bicycle race in the early 1930s, an image he found in
the Glenbow Museum archives. The stitches are a veil of history, a veneer,
only lightly obscuring the features, representing what we could never know
from the subjects: what that moment meant for them. The meticulous stitching
also draws our attention to the act of viewing, and gives the image materiality,
lifting it from two-dimensionality. To think of Curreris needle repeatedly
piercing the surface of the images is to wince a little. It is slowly, deliberately
violent, like a spider trapping a fly, embalming it in its thread.
Barbara Astmans works in the exhibition, made at the beginning of her
career in the early 1970s, are quirky, crafty representations. She put together
materials that were decidedly not fine art to create books and wall, firmly
declaring that anything can be put to arts purposes. In Carol Preparing
for Bed (1973), Astman uses a series of snapshots to cinematic effect.
The subject, her sister going to bed, stands in contrast to the momentous,
significant occasions that usually make the cut as snapshot worthy. This is
consistent with the feminism of the time, whereby the personal, the everyday,
the vernacular were all being reexamined, and new versions were actively being
concocted. Astmans Family Photo Album (1974) is just that, a
collection of family snaps, but it feels more like a zine than an album. She
has included a narrow selection of images to photocopy, colour in, laminate
and bind together, her idiosyncratic take on a family "bible."
In Clint Griffins work, he does what most of us would find unthinkable.
Working with actual found snapshots, he cuts them, draws on them, peels away
their emulsion to create new compositions. Rather than draw figures or other
objects, he uses the photographic representations instead, representations
we more easily relate to. The gestural, raw quality of his mixed media works
disturbs the calm reflecting pool of photographs made to document the good
times. They now represent a less certain, more troubled existence, one filled
with striving, mistakes, longing and stasis.
While the works described above build on what we know of snapshots, there
one exception: Nina Levitts work Submerged (for Alice Austen)
(1991-92). Levitt has appropriated an image and broken it apart to uncover
what it is we think we know about looking at photographs. Employing a clear
postmodern strategy, she deconstructs the image and brings to the surface
another meaning and another possible history. The source image was made by
Staten Island resident, Alice Austen, an avid photographer who documented
her family and friends. However, because these were her main subjects, she
was relegated to the status of amateur.
Levitt found the image in a book and became enthralled with it as a symbol
of what has been forgotten, overlooked. Her impulses are akin to those of
the other ten artists as she reinvests the found with new significance, reclaims
and recontextualizes history to show us something about the world at large,
in this case, proof of lesbian lives lived. Levitt recasts so-called amateur
photography by questioning the status of one such amateur and declares the
amateur/professional distinction irrelevant.
Joel Smith declares early on in his article "The Snapshots Museum
Afterlife": "Not unlike the skipping, popping, long-playing vinyl
record, an object of fetishistic nostalgia among listeners raised on compact
discs, the snapshot with its blurs and thumbprints is taking shape as the
most potent emblem of a dying mediums historicity." 12 Many
have forecast the snapshots demise, assuming that our taste for the
new, digital technologies will overtake our love of the analog. Smith doesnt
buy it (see his description of Kohs work above).
What these doomsdayers miss is that it is not the snapshot itself that we
love, but what we hope it can tell us. To go back to Avedon: some kind of
lie about who we are, some kind of truth about who we want to be. It turns
out, we need fiction. Snapshots are our most accessible and reliable delivery
Art is also fiction; it also presents versions of our worlds, our realities,
lies and truths. Where snapshots are concerned, photography, in the contemporary
fine art context, has an advantage over other media for this reconsideration
of the snapshots role in our lives. The parallels in their production,
if not their intentions, make for an easy "conversation." While
artists are the interpreters of this visual material, the fact remains that
amateur photographers have made and continue to make millions of photographs.
Because of them, this exhibition exists. And, well, it seemed to us as curators
that it only made sense to keep it all in the family.
1 Richard Avedon, "Borrowed Dogs,"
in Ben Sonnenberg, ed., Performance and Reality: Essays from Grand Street
(New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1989): p. 15.
2 Richard Chalfen, Snapshot Versions of Life (Ohio: Bowling
Green State University Popular Press, 1987): pp. 74-92.
3 Chalfen: p. 99.
4 Chalfen: p. 97.
5 Chalfen: p. 140.
6 Tony Godfrey, Conceptual Art (London: Phaidon Press,
1998): p. 301.
7 Lisa Gabrielle Mark, "Button pusher," Canadian
Art, spring 2001, vol. 18, no.1, pp. 55-56.
8 Joel Smith, "The Snapshots Museum Afterlife,"
Afterimage, September 2001, at <www.findarticles.com>: p. 11.
9 Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: photography, narrative and
postmemory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997): p. 22.
10 Hirsch: p. 13.
11 Blake Fitzpatrick, "An Artists Archive," in
Alltagsgeschichten (some histories of everyday life) (Toronto: Toronto
Photographers Workshop and the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography,
1996): p. 31.
12 Smith: pp. 1-2.
Works by Barbara Astman and Vid Ingelevics borrowed
from the CMCP. Work by Nina Levitt borrowed from The Canada Council Art
Bank. All other works in the exhibition provided by the artists.
The curators would like to thank the staff and board
of Gallery TPW, The Canada Council Art Bank, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary
Photography, Gallery 44, Ryerson Gallery, Jane Farrow, Kelsey Finlayson,
Nancy Friedland, Gaye Jackson, Sue Lagasi and Jennifer Rudder.
Essay by Sophie Hackett
Copy Edited by Bridget Indelicato
Web layout designed by Dave Kemp
Sophie Hackett is a writer, independent curator and arts administrator.
She holds a BFA in photography from the Emily Carr Institute of Art &
Design. Her writing has been published in Lola, Saturday Night magazine,
Xtra!, C magazine, Canadian Art and Prefix Photo.
Jennifer Long is a photographer and
curator who studied photographic arts at
Ryerson University. In November 2002, her most recent work, Doubt,
is on exhibit at Luft Gallery in Toronto. She is the Education Coordinator
at Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography.
Sara Angelucci, born in Hamilton, Ontario, is a photo and video artist living
in Toronto. She completed her BFA at the University of Guelph and her MFA
at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design. She has exhibited her photography
across Canada including exhibitions at Le Mois de la Photo in Montreal and
solo shows at Ace Art in Winnipeg, Gallery TPW and the Macdonald Stewart
Art Centre. Angelucci's videos have been screened across Canada and have
been included in festivals in Europe and Hong Kong. She is currently the
Director of Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography in Toronto and
is represented by the Wynick/Tuck Gallery.
Barbara Astman has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in Canada and
internationally since the early 1970s, and has work in public collections
in Canada, the United Stated and Europe. She has been on faculty at the
Ontario College of Art & Design since 1975 where she is a Professor
in the Faculty of Art. She is represented by the Jane Corkin Gallery in
Toronto, where her most recent body of work, Paris Postcards, was
exhibited in the fall of 2002.
Dean Baldwin, raised in Shelburne, Ontario, currently lives and works in
Toronto where he completed his BFA at York University in 1997. Currently,
he is completing his Masters Degree at Concordia University in Montreal,
and working for the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto. He has exhibited
in Canada since 1996 with international stints in both Japan and the former
Yugoslavia. He prefers his eggs over easy with brown toast.
Chris Curreri is a recent graduate of the Image Arts Program at Ryerson
University who also obtained a Foundation Studies Diploma from the Ontario
College of Art & Design. At OCAD, he was awarded the Christopher and
Pratt Tuition Scholarship and while at Ryerson he won the Robert Gooblar
Memorial Award. He works and lives in Toronto and is currently represented
by the Peak Gallery, Toronto.
Max Dean was born in Leeds, England and immigrated to Canada in 1952. He
is known for his performance/sculpture/installation-based works, which often
invite the active participation of the viewer. His work has been included
in dAPERTutto at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and Platea dellumanita
the Venice Biennale in 2001. Recent museum exhibitions include Quality
Control, Site Gallery, Sheffield, England; Canadian Stories,
Hendeles Art Foundation, Toronto; Voici, 100 years of contemporary art,
Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; The Fifth Element, Kunsthalle Dusseldorf,
and Iconoclash at ZKM, Karlsruhe. He is represented by Susan Hobbs
Gallery in Toronto.
Nancy Friedland is a photo-based artist who lives and works in Toronto.
After studying photography at the Ontario College of Art & Design, she
completed her MFA at the Rochester Institute of Technology as a Sir Edmund
Walker Scholar. Her most recent solo show entitled Sixes and Sevens
(2001) focused on the family photograph and how it becomes invested with
narrative and meaning. She is represented by the Katharine Mulherin Gallery
Clint Griffin is known for trolling through the discards of photo developing
His fused photo stacks have developed into large-scale mixed media tableaux
that incorporate fragments of snapshots.
Vid Ingelevicss work as an artist (and as a curator and writer)
could be said to be concerned with the exploration of two broad areas that,
at times, have overlapped for him -- photography's mediating role in our
understanding of the past and in the nature of the built form we experience
as urban dwellers. His projects have thus moved from exploring the relationship
between commercial studio photography and the work of museum photographers
in one case to studying a Toronto apartment building as an accumulation
of views from its own balconies in another. His artwork has been presented
in exhibitions across Canada and in Europe including The Power Plant, Toronto;
Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Ottawa; the Museum of Modern
Art, Oxford, England; and the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland. My curatorial
projects have specifically focused on considering the relationship between
photography, the archive and public museums and have been presented at such
institutions as the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg; Musée d'art de
Joliette, Joliette; Presentation House, Vancouver; the Photographer's Gallery,
London, England; and the Bildmuseet, Umeå, Sweden. Reviews and photography-related
essays he has written have appeared in Blackflash; Canadian Art; C; Alphabet
City and Visual Resoures: The Journal of Visual Documentation.
Germaine Koh is a visual artist and curator of no fixed address. She has
recently had solo exhibitions at McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, the
Contemporary Art Gallery and Catriona Jeffries Gallery in Vancouver, Plug
In ICA in Winnipeg and the British Museum in London. This past year, her
work was included in programs at The Power Plant in Toronto, MUCA-Roma in
Mexico City and Kunstradio in Vienna.
Adrienne Lai is a writer and photographer based in Vancouver. She received
her Master's Degree in Fine Arts from the University of California, Irvine
2001 and currently teaches at the Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design.
Nina Levitt is an artist whose work primarily appropriates images of
transgressive women from photographs, films and television. In particular,
she is interested in examining how lesbians have been imaged and imagined
in popular culture. Her recent work includes the video installation Gravity
(part of the travelling exhibition The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg
Vancouver Art Gallery, 2001-2003) and a collaborative new media installation
LIttle Breeze about women spys (part of Finding Camp X: Contemporary
Considerations of an Enigma, at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa,
2002). Since 1997, she has been teaching in the School of Image Arts New
Media program at Ryerson University.