Photography changes our life stories

Marvin Heiferman

Story By
Marvin Heiferman [ BIO ]

[ CLOSE ]

Marvin Heiferman

Marvin Heiferman, guest curator of click! photography changes everything, is creative consultant at the Smithsonian Photography Initiative. His previous curatorial projects include, John Waters: Change of Life (New Museum, 2004), Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution (Exit Art, 2000), Fame After Photography (The Museum of Modern Art, 1999), Talking Pictures (International Center of Photography, 1994), Image World: Art and Media Culture (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1989), and The Family of Man, 1954-1984 (P.S. 1, 1984).

Bookmark and Share

Marvin Heiferman, guest curator of click! photography changes everything, reflects on the ways snapshots shape personal history and memory.

Sometimes the simplest or smallest of photographs are the ones that become the most powerful. Snapshots are like that: a button is pushed, a shutter opens and closes, and an image made in a fraction of a second transforms a moment of everyday life into something special, even magical. Mundane experiences get reshaped as memories. What was lively becomes still. The present becomes the past. Since the first Kodak snapshot cameras were introduced in 1888, we’ve all become photographers, enabled and encouraged to record life not quite as it is lived, but the way we want to see it represented.

Snapshots became widespread and affordable early in the twentieth century, when sending and receiving picture postcards was a novelty, as glamour photographs of movie stars triggered fantasies that anyone could rise to fame and celebrity, as pages of picture magazines filled with seductive advertising photographs and human interest stories in tabloids featured casual, sometimes sensational images of the public activities and private lives of well–known and ordinary people. A lively public dialog grew up around all of those photographs—about how photography granted authority to some, celebrity to others, and visibility and the promise of immortality to all.

Snapshot photography made it possible for amateurs to make their own news, advertising and publicity pictures, all in the course of their everyday lives. Photographs of loved ones, treasured objects, special events, novel experiences, and favorite places were made and then sent away to be processed. Once returned, they were marveled over, talked about, laughed at, cried over. Then they were glued into photo albums, fitted into frames, and tucked away in wallets, shoeboxes, and paper bags. Examine any snapshot closely enough and you will be reminded of the challenges and pleasure of distilling the life’s big moments and little victories into iconic images. This picture (from a Smithsonian collection of snapshots of people and their automobiles) is a perfect and complex example of that—a sunny day, a smiling woman, the breeze that messes up her hair, an impressive car, and in the background a row of cemetery monuments.

The quality of compression, and the surreal juxtaposition in many snapshots, goes a long way toward explaining their out–of–scale meaning and impact. Snapshots can remind us of what is or once was. They can overwhelm memory and even logic. Snapshots—whether they’re ours or are anonymous, like this one—briefly excuse us from the present and allow us to talk back to time and mortality. Snapshots fascinate us because they are always incomplete; they demand our interaction. We search them for clues, trying to remember or confirm who we were, who and what we’ve cared about, where we’ve been, and what we’ve become.

In the decades since this charming and curious image was taken, our relationship to snapshots and photographic technology has shifted. Today, snapshots are no longer one–of–a–kind, fragile keepsakes that we make to document special occasions. We’ve moved beyond snapping and posing for pictures at birthday parties, graduations, and sightseeing opportunities to taking and sharing digital images of whatever it is we find provocative, weird, amusing, and embarrassing. Today, photography isn’t special; it happens all the time. And snapshots are no longer, by nature, private pictures anymore; they can and do reach unintended and unprecedented audiences in a matter of seconds.

Snapshots made in 2004 by American soldiers working as guards in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq circulating quickly and worldwide, triggered an international scandal. Websites, online dating services, and amateur pornography sites encourage image posting and viewing on levels unimaginable a decade ago. As you read this, loved ones, potential loved ones, friends, rivals, families, prospective employers, sexual predators, financial lenders, college admission offices, law enforcement agents, and political operatives are all trolling the Internet to see how people are represented in snapshots, many of which have outgrown or outlived their original contexts and intended audiences. Old snapshots, too, get new lives and audiences as paper–based snapshots from the twentieth century are discarded, become rare, and end up in museum collections, poignant evidence of our primal and constant need to be seen, recognized, and remembered.

[ TOP ]

Kodak Snapshot of Woman In Blue Dress By Car by Unidentified photographer
[ + ]
  • Kodak Snapshot of Woman In Blue Dress By Car, 1959
  • Unidentified photographer
Norma Volz Seated on the Hood of 1947 Ford by Unidentified photographer
  • Norma Volz Seated on the Hood of 1947 Ford, c. 1950's
  • Unidentified photographer
Kodak Snapshot of Family Standing In the Back of a Blue Station Wagon by Unidentified photographer
  • Kodak Snapshot of Family Standing In the Back of a Blue Station Wagon, 1962
  • Unidentified photographer
Two Women Hugging, Seated on Left Side of Car with Maryland, 1951 License Plate by Unidentified photographer
  • Two Women Hugging, Seated on Left Side of Car with Maryland, 1951 License Plate, 1951
  • Unidentified photographer
“Two Happy Brothers,” Named “Louis and Frankie” by Unidentified photographer
  • “Two Happy Brothers,” Named “Louis and Frankie”, c. 1950's
  • Unidentified photographer
Norma Volz, Seated In Driver’s Seat of 1947 Ford by Unidentified photographer
  • Norma Volz, Seated In Driver’s Seat of 1947 Ford, c. 1950's
  • Unidentified photographer

Related Images

Untitled by Unidentified photographer
Kids Swimming Underwater, Advertisement for Eastman Kodak Company Staged in Cyprus Gardens, Florida by Arthur D'Arazien
Untitled by Unidentified photographer
Untitled by R. McDougall
Untitled by Unidentified photographer
Family Photo Album by Mary Taylor
Untitled by Unidentified photographer
Sunday Laugh by Steven M. Cummings
Harry Bowden in a Car by Unidentified photographer
Three Friends in a Field by Unidentified photographer
Untitled by Unidentified photographer
Untitled by Unidentified photographer
Man with a Bicycle by Unidentified photographer
Untitled (Sign "Film") by Steven Fitch