(click on images for a larger view)
WHAT MAKES A GREAT SNAPSHOT? As a general rule, many of the same things that one might use to judge any artwork fall into play. Connoisseurship in any field has its criteria. My good friend Brian loves great automobiles. If I were to ask him what makes a great automobile, I would guess him to say craftsmanship, performance, design, quality—those kind of things. Notice I didn’t say anything about cost. If I had asked him “what are the qualities of the most expensive cars in the world?” that is a different question altogether. Then, he might say something like rarity, being first. To that point, an 1898 one-off prototype of a steam-powered car (ugly, by many standards) might trump the very first Mercedes, for example. But then again, maybe not. But I have opened a can of worms here—in a field I know little about. I do know that the art—the design— of an automobile can give it immortality. Raymond Loewy’s Avanti, for example, still turns heads today if you would be fortunate enough to see one.

In the world of snapshots, or “vernacular photography” as they call it today, we have to understand the difference between the work of a trained photographer and that of an everyday snapshot shooter. We’ll call the everyday snapshot guy “Uncle Charlie.”

Uncle Charlie, who has his Brownie camera with him one day to get a few shots of his friend’s retirement party, is leaving work when sees a blimp flying overhead and remembers he still has a picture left. He thinks the sighting of a blimp unusual enough to want to record it. He tried to get directly under it but it is moving too fast. Charlie thinks: “Damn that building! If only I had a better shot! Oh, what the hell!” *Click!* When the pictures come back from the drugstore, he is probably bothered a bit by all the intrusions that came with the picture, like the pole, wire, the two buildings—but, he thinks, at least I got my picture. Mission accomplished.

Now, if the great modernist photographer Lee Friedlander happened to have been there on the same day, the last thing he would have wanted was a single shot of the belly of the blimp. Chances are he would have run to the alley and tried to get a shot similar to the one that Uncle Charlie took, which was basically by accident and default. Friedlander would have reveled in the juxtapositions of the blimp to the wire and the buildings to the blimp and seized upon that very moment. Could he have taken a better picture of that blimp on that day? Probably. But Uncle Charlie stumbled onto this great photo—in spite of himself. It is doubtful that this anonymous snapshot shooter allowed his mind to make the critical analysis that a trained photographer might have done.

So, what about that criteria? What do I look for in a great snapshot? Well, the great snapshots are absolutely rare. You have to figure that 99% of the time there is no negative, so this is all you will ever have of this particular view. What you are holding in your hand is the only existing image of this particular shot. For example, there are millions of pictures of men in hats. But only ONE like the one you see above. That makes it a one-of-a-kind. Add to that the qualities I list for you below—and you have a great photo.

When I look at a snapshot I look for the following things: (1) composition: simply, does it work as a picture? (2) tonality: does it have a full-range of values, from white to gray to black? Or, does it break this rule for something more dramatic or sublime? (3) content: what is it a picture of? Is the image unusual, with uncommon subject matter? Does it challenge me visually? Is there a surprise, something unexpected? Do I continue to see more the longer I look? (4) condition: Is the photo is good shape? Is it bent, wrinkled or damaged? Or, is it pristine?

(5) My last criteria, and this is personal to my collecting eye: does the snapshot remind me of something a great photographer might have taken? Is it a little Diane Arbus? Is it an “accidental” Weegee, Friedlander, Siskind, Steiglitz, Strand or other?

I’ll be showcasing some other snapshots from time-to-time. Thanks and stay tuned.

An AM repost from 1/15/09.