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WHAT IS VERNACULAR PHOTOGRAPHY? 

IS IT ART ?

A STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS ILLUSTRATED DEFINITION




          Vernacular photographs are photographs that serve some kind of function or purpose.  In  that  sense , most of the photographs ever made might  be considered vernacular images.



          The only photographs that might conceivably fall outside of the vernacular definition would be “Art Photographs.”  These would be images made for the specific intent of showing how photographs could be considered an art form.  They have no other function. Ironically, however,  one could  actually say that art photographs   are also vernacular in that they do have a very specific function, i.e. to be taken as works of art. 


There   are photographers  who intentionally make art photographs that look like snapshots or other forms of vernacular images.   Some photographs by Walker Evans are usually cited as being   among the best examples of this.


The most primal form of vernacular photography would be snapshots.  They can be taken, and have in fact been taken by almost everybody.  This is especially true today when people are so attached to their cell phones and every cell phone has a camera.   These snapshots commemorate people, places, events, and objects that are usually important to the person taking the picture. 




While digital   photographs can be uploaded to the internet and potentially seen by millions of people, physical snapshots taken with a film camera have a much more limited area of distribution.  They are usually only seen by family and friends.  As these people die off, their possessions, including snapshots, are dissipated out into the world.  Many are destroyed  for various reasons while others  make it into the marketplace where a buyer will have no direct connection to the people, events, or objects  pictured.


Snapshots capture a moment in time that had some significance to the photographer.  That particular moment   will probably have little or no importance to someone looking at the image some years later.  The image, however,  might in fact hold up if  it has some other kind of appeal  i.e.

artistic,



humorous,



        








emotional, and 







informational.







Collectors are finding that many of these images have very attractive   qualities and they have built collections where  such  snapshot  photographs are included.  Since these snapshots come from many varied sources and numerous different families, these collections say more about the vision and artistic sensibility of the collector rather than about the photographers.    There is a random nature about most vernacular photographs.  A photographer might take an excellent image which will find its way into a vernacular photography collection.  It is very unusual to find a vernacular photographer who has made more than one or two exceptionable photographs.  Although, it is possible to find a talented amateur photographer who has taken a number of really good vernacular images.  Unfortunately,  the identity of most snapshot photographers, generally, remains unknown. The Bridgeport Cyanotypist is an example of just such a photographer.

           

    




It is interesting however, that snapshot photographs, although taken by many different photographers,  tend to be archetypal in   that  they  depict similar  subject matter,

i.e. food,









family,









friends and colleagues


    







                                                                           (Coldstream Guard.  Salt Print)

vacations,





   




cars, 








pets,


 


      



events, and






                 



    


jobs.







Snapshots have been taken by millions of people and consequently, millions of snapshots exist.  Just by sheer numbers, very few of them can be considered good photographs.

 

VERNACULAR PHOTOGRAPHY IS LIKE FOLK ART.

A vernacular photograph  was not  made with the intention   of being seen as a work of art rather It did have some specific function when it was created.  It captured a moment in the life of the photographer which had some significance to him.  In point of fact, many vernacular photographs are not very good images.  They fulfilled their purpose when they were taken and that was that.  However, some of them do rise above their utilitarian function and may be considered as works of art. This is of course in the eye of the beholder of the image and not the photographer who created it.



A CONUNDRUM:  If a vernacular photograph is a work   of  art , is it still  a vernacular photograph?

 

MISNOMER

While we now accept the term “Vernacular Photography”  as referring to a specific type of photographic image, the term itself may be a misnomer. 


DEFINITION OF THE WORD “vernacular”

“A vernacular, or vernacular language, is the lect used in everyday life by the common people of a specific population. It is distinguished from national, literary, liturgical or scientific idiom, or a lingua franca, used to facilitate communication across a large area. It is usually native, mostly spoken informally rather than written and usually seen as of lower status than more codified forms. It can be a distinct stylistic register, regional dialect, sociolect or an independent language.

In the context of language standardization, the term "vernacular" is also used specifically to refer to nonstandard dialects of a certain language, as opposed to its prestige normative forms. (Wikipedia)”



If we try to apply this definition to photography, it means that we are referring to the images taken by everyday people without necessarily have any training. 




Vernacular photography is the photography of the common man, or in this case child.  Anybody who takes up a camera and snaps a picture has, in essence, created a vernacular photograph.




   


Sometimes these photographs have been called “Found Photographs.”  Who were they found by.  Most probably the collector who sees them as artistic.  All of these photographs were never produced to be works of art.  Certainly the photographer , when he snapped a photograph of his new car, his wife, his vacation, never thought that he was creating art.  He was capturing   memories.    These memories could be put in an album and looked at over and over again in order to recall a moment. 




It was a decisive moment in the memory of the photographer and his family.  It really should not have had any meaning to anyone outside of the family. 


PROFESSIONAL VERNACULAR PHOTOGRAPHS

Does a professional photographer have a similar outlook when he is taking a   picture.   Probably   not.  He is taking a photograph for some particular commercial or utilitarian purpose for which he is being compensated.  These types of photographs can also be sometimes considered works of art in the eyes of the beholder.  They can also become iconic.  Two that immediately come to mind are the images of the  Hindenburg crash by Murray Becker




and the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima  by Joe Rosenthal



Neither was made as works of art and yet both are considered great photographs and are regularly traded on the photography art  market.


 An aerial photograph produced during wartime as a means of gathering information about the enemy  no longer serves that particular function.  It now has the look of an abstract work of art.  




The details that once may have been important to a military analyst, are now  no longer relevant for the purpose for which they were made.  This may be true for other professional photographers  who took pictures which now fulfill a function quite different from the original purpose for which they were intended.



SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS REGARDING VERNACULAR PHOTOGRAPHY

 

Vernacular photography is a type of photography that is seen to be akin to Folk Art

 

Photographs taken   by untrained photographers are vernacular photographs.  Some are good, but many are not.

  

Found photographs = vernacular photographs.

 

It is ironic that while art photographs are not vernacular photographs, some vernacular photographs do become art photographs.

 

Each single image in a vernacular photography collection was most likely  taken by  a different photographer.

 

Some movie stills,



portraits



(Aunt Mary In Turkish Costume.  Salt Print)



(Major Hodson as the prince in Cinderella.  Salt Print)


and news photographs




may be vernacular images

 

Hand painted photographs are vernacular and may even be folk art.



(Austrian Woman. Hand painted  salt print.)


Photographs marked for publication are vernacular in that the markings have transformed them into unique collages and sometimes objects which may have some artistic merit.


                        

(Ben Hur 1925. Ramon Novarro & May McAvoy)


                                                                                                                  

(The White Sister 1923. Lillian Gish & Ronald Colman)


Art photographs are not vernacular photographs unless they are and
visa versa




A collection of vernacular photographs mirrors the eye of the collector.

 

 

 

 

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