Personal Essay | Visual Arts

The Art of the Snapshot

Amanda Moore with her parents at Stone Mountain

As a professional artist and photographer nothing strikes fear in my heart more than hearing, “Would you mind taking our picture?” or, “Amanda is the photographer, let her take the picture.” How do I tell my grandmother that I am used to photographing non-moving desert landscapes with a Sinar 4×5 camera, and her little Digital Elph scares the bejesus out of me? Anxiety starts coursing through my veins. What if I cut everyone’s head off, maybe they will think its just me being arty. Or what if the picture is too boring or if everyone thinks they look bad, will they think I am a terrible photographer? Should I tell them to say “F Stop” instead of “cheese” so they know I’m the real deal? I have a website, should I tell them that, or that I am working on a book? Maybe that will let them know I am actually good. To me the snapshot represents something I am not familiar with: portraits. The snapshot can be so loaded, especially in the hands of someone that should “know what they are doing…” The snapshot, depending on which philosophy you buy into, can be a window into someone’s soul or it can just be a tragedy waiting to happen.

When I think of the art of the snapshot, the first name that comes to mind is Jacques Henri Lartigue. A child auteur, Lartigue began shooting before his adolescence and captured unbelievably memorable images of his upper class family in turn-of-the-century Paris. In his journals before he received his first Brownie, he wrote that when he saw a scene he wanted to capture, he would blink three times and it would forever be his. He was born to photograph. He captured iconic scenes of upper class women walking their tiny dogs on the Champs Elysee in the most contemporary fashions. He photographed his family and friends in amazing scenarios and costumes. A fan of auto racing, some of the only images he sold as a youth were to a racing magazine. His snapshots became the journal of his life. It wasn’t until Lartigue was 69 years old that the curator for the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, got his hands on his images and he had his first exhibition. Apropos, Lartigue’s book was titled Diary of a Century, for it truly was that. Many professional photographers spend decades trying to create images that mimic the spontaneity and honesty of Lartigue’s early works.

Diane Arbus is famously quoted, “A photograph is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.” Arbus is well known for her portraiture of all types of people. There was no taboo or line she wasn’t willing to cross to create an interesting portrait of one of her many interesting subjects. Many of her images were created to mimic the snapshot aesthetic. She was able to do this so often because she became friends with her subjects. Arbus could capture that honest moment because the relationship between the person behind and in front of the camera was not forced. There are tales of Arbus being friends with a subject for almost a decade before she ever asked if she could take their picture. The images created in these circumstances become much more intimate and familial, as a result not professionally set up portraits, but a snap shot into the person’s life. Because her subjects so often did not fit within the rules of “normal” society, the images could put off the viewers. A group shot of a young family is thrown off by the fact that the parents are of different races. In the ’50s and ’60s, this was still hard for many to imagine and tolerate. The image of a woman curling her hair before a night out became disconcerting to the viewer when they realized that the woman was in fact a man. Even though the events and moments captured seemed “normal” enough, they just weren’t. The beauty of this is that her viewers were allowed to be voyeurs into a taboo world, but found out it actually wasn’t much different from their own.

Nan Goldin took this art form even further when she photographed every wonderful and painful moment of her life for public consumption. In the body of work, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” she photographed close friends and herself in the throes of drug addiction, sexual exploration, domestic violence, and interpersonal relationships with them all. The work photographed in the early ’80s had few survivors: drug overdoses, suicide, and AIDS gave the body of work a tragic ending. Oftentimes, instead of prints, the work was seen as a slideshow, mimicking the way so many vacations and family photos were seen throughout America. I wonder if Ms. Goldin were to create this work today, if instead of a slideshow she would be tempted to scrapbook it, reflecting the memory collectors of the day, or place the whole thing in the Flickr pool for all the internet to see.

So much baggage comes with being a great snapshot photographer. Since the early days of amateur photography, images were manipulated either in their staging or in their printing. Popular books gave away secrets of perspective, depth of field, shadows, and double exposure. These tricks of the trade may have obscured some of the truth in the image, but they gave the viewer a different set of clues. They allowed the distant viewer a glimpse not only into the personality of the subject but of the photographer as well. The clues come in slowly with the obvious humor or macabre nature of the manipulated image. The execution gives information on how well studied the photographer was in the attempt. The type of camera and print also give the viewer clues to the financial background of the photographer and of course the time period. Some of the most amazing snapshot photographs were completely accidental. Others were created by well studied amateurs.

In my own life, in order to get better, I have forced myself to start photographing the little memorable moments. My camera of choice for this process is my Polaroid SLR 680. Unfortunately my choice in this camera has turned me into something besides a snapshot photographer, I have become a hoarder. In February of 2008, the Polaroid Camera company announced it would shut down all of its factories that create the instant film to focus on their electronics division. There are obvious issues with that statement (everyone relates the name Polaroid to DVD players, right?), but what that means is my days as a snapshot photographer are numbered.

As a working artist and photographer, much of my work is time consuming and well thought out. Often I use large or medium format cameras, formats that slow down my process, but I now try to have at least one Polaroid camera on hand. The camera captures the spontaneous moments between shots. This is my Snapshot camera. It records the events between the art, private moments between my family and pets and me. It captures the fast moments, those shots out the moving car window or the slow moments like the month of unending tooth ache. It records my life between the lines. Oftentimes, my husband writes out small signs explaining my anxiety and photographs me holding them. Fearing the look on my face could be any irritating thing, he wants to make sure I remember the cause of my discomfort. By the time he has a memorial for me, we hoped there would be at least a hundred. But now, we will have to rethink our last moments with the end of the precious film. Even though we hope there are many more years to celebrate and stress together, our silent recorder is in its final days.

The true beauty of the snapshot lies in this unknowing land of how many more will there be. If Roland Barthes is correct and in fact “…every photograph is a tragedy…” then every click of the second hand represents an impending time bomb. When the Tsunami hit on December 26th, 2004, the only images visitors to the Asian beaches had of missing loved ones were the often cheesy and staged vacation shots taken as souvenirs. Their last moments captured on film were the posed moments of life; visiting a museum or church, having a daiquiri on the beach, or the family group shot at some innocuous location during the trip. These images at first glance seem identical to all those shot before them, but to the families and the patient viewer, a final narrative is presented.

After the World Trade Towers collapsed on September 11th, 2001, makeshift missing person boards were erected around the city. The images of loved ones on their last birthday, graduating college, visiting their grandma or just hanging out with friends were everywhere. Eventually the truth of the situation became apparent, and many of these people were to never return home. The missing person boards became memorials, as no one wanted to see them removed. These last snapshots became the viewer’s window into the world of the missing. There is the couch that moved from college into a first apartment with the intent of replacing it once they got a raise. There is grandma’s 80th birthday, the last time the whole family was together. There is the picture of ex-lovers, no longer separated by a fight but caught in a sweet embrace for eternity in the mind of the unrelated viewer. These moments, the ones friends and family have collected created the narrative of a city– not just the individual. Viewers were brought closer to the victims through the commonality of events. Maybe you had that couch in your first apartment, maybe you can’t throw away a picture of an ex-girlfriend or you treasure your last family picture at grandma’s house.

An irritated Amanda Moore

No matter what the intent, who the photographer is or when it was taken, the beauty of the snapshot is that it records that invisible part of all of us that connects us together. Those hypothetical strings that bind us. How amazing is it that one hundred years ago, folks were photographing their first pet, high school graduations, visits to the zoo and first dates? No matter how removed we can feel in the technology of the day, the purpose has remained the same: to record our lives. Photographers, fashion designers, and moviemakers today look for inspiration from the works of Lartigue. The works of Diane Arbus were put together in one amazing collection, “Revelations,” and in 2003 they began a world tour that has brought in millions of viewers. Nan Goldin’s frank and profound body of work still generates discomfort and awe in its viewers. Most recently in a gallery in London, one of her pieces was confiscated by Scotland Yard. No matter what the final intent, snapshots by friends, family, or strangers all have the ability to make us reflect upon our own lives and memories. There is great power in that, which is why it still terrifies me.

I think when someone discusses something as intimate as snapshots, it is only fair to share. The first image is of my parents and me in 1979, most likely at Stone Mountain, Georgia. For the record that is still a favorite pose. The second image is one my husband took with the Polaroid when one of my art shows had to come down early because a bride renting gallery space did not like my work. It created some serious anxiety as is seen on my face. For the record, I do not dislike all Provo brides; it was just the one.

Amanda Moore’s photography is featured in an exhibit titled True West, showing at the Rose Wagner Art Center through July 31. Her work can be seen online at

Categories: Personal Essay | Visual Arts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *