Everybody’s Photography
by Edward M. Gomez

What’s old is new—again, as collectors like John Foster, with their connoisseurs’ passion for meaningful, time-worn objects, bring a decisive point of view and a sense of the thrill of the hunt to the still-evolving field of vernacular photography.

As they gather and codify their finds, collectors like Foster are creating a new category whose awkward-sounding label has been stretched to fit a rather diverse range of material. Technically, the kinds of images it denotes may date back to the earliest days of the medium of photography or they may have been made yesterday, with the most up-to-date digital cameras.

In practice, though, the kinds of photographs that collectors in this field tend to savor are older and usually have been abandoned or have already passed, inexplicably, from their creators and original owners, through innumerable, unknown hands, to the tchotchke-laden tables of yard sales and flea markets. There, when they’re lucky, scavengers like Foster just might spot a gem. (Sometimes referred to as “anonymous” photos, they are anonymous only because those who stumble upon them may never learn the identities of the people who created them.) The treasures such collectors are looking for—faded family snapshots; cast-off school or corporate-I.D. pictures; unknown group portraits of classmates, sports teams or clubs; routine news photos; photo-booth strips or miscellaneous, stock commercial fare—tend to be images that are indelibly marked by the passage of time.

As a collecting category, so-called vernacular photography is still defining itself—its subject matter, its aesthetic parameters, its affinities with and differences from other art forms. As a label, it is still trying to accommodate the wide-ranging body of material it describes.

Why “vernacular”? Like such better-known phenomena as vernacular architecture (New England barns, Southern houses with broad verandahs, adobe dwellings of the Southwest) or vernacular language (local dialects marked by distinctive accents, words and phrases), “vernacular photography” refers to something that is indigenous, primarily homemade (as opposed to imposed from outside or copied from an external source) and decidedly commonplace. It designates that which is common and familiar enough to have, in effect, become a recognizable, definitive form in its own right in a particular field, an enduring, generic form of creative expression that is as much a reflection of the culture of a specific people or place as it is a defining aspect of the cultural environment of a particular people and the region they call home.

When it comes to vernacular photography, the place in question is conceptual, not necessarily physical or geographic. Here, “vernacular” refers to a locus of expression in the medium of photographic image-making that is, simultaneously, everywhere and nowhere; traditionally, that familiar “place” has been and is anywhere where anyone who has ever handled a camera, shooting a conventional kind of photo (like the family snapshots or other generic images listed above), has pointed his or her lens.

In this sense, “vernacular” photography isn’t “vernacular” because its makers intend it to be common or broadly familiar in form or thematic content to many people in many places, but rather because we out-of-the-loop viewers of such images (we who are not the end users for which such photographs are or were originally produced) say they are.

More precisely, “vernacular” photographs are not intrinsically generic; they may appear commonplace to us now but it is only over time that they become so recognizably familiar that we begin to see certain ones as emblematic of particular genres. That is because, being of different thematically, artistically or technically similar types (technically similar in terms of how they were generated, cropped or composed), their status as something inescapably familiar is reinforced and becomes more enduring (more traditional) the more frequently and the more widely they are produced.

With these characteristics in mind, it may come as no surprise that many of the photographs to which collectors of vernacular photography are most keenly drawn were made by what would usually be called amateur photographers. These collectors look for prize images in old family albums or among the once-instant, now-forgotten Polaroids that turn up in the dusty corners of junk-filled drawers.

Some collectors regard professionally produced commercial, medical, scientific, public-relations or journalistic (for newspapers and magazines) photographs as vernacular material, too. Insofar as professionally made photos in such fields constitute generic types of images whose makers, again, may be unknown and therefore remain “anonymous,” and insofar as, respectively, these varied kinds of photos may be characterized by similar subject matter or technical details, collectors may regard them as vernacular forms of expression that are emblematic of the different areas in which they evolved and which they represent.

So it is that the still-evolving, emerging field of vernacular photography has been largely driven and shaped by the aesthetic points of view of its most avid collectors. For the most part, those like Foster have been motivated by their love of what they view as interesting object-artifacts and by their fascination with the stories—obvious, implied or never to be exactly known—that the photographs they acquire may uncertainly suggest and only sometimes more definitely convey.

They may well be aware of the now-familiar, postmodernist critical thinking that calls attention to the new meanings that can emerge when a family snapshot made to record someone’s special occasion or an out-of-focus Polaroid snapped by chance at a booze-filled party is seen in a context that is very different from that in which it was made. They know that, despite the purposes for which the photo-artifacts that are the objects of their desire may have been made, their appreciation of these images, which most likely aestheticizes them more than they would have been aestheticized by their original, intended users, or even fetishizes them, unmistakably alters their original meanings and value. (In a way, this is a major reason for and an inevitable result of collecting anything.)

For collectors like Foster, though, searching for, looking at and bringing together certain generic kinds of images made by unknown lensmen is not a conscious exercise in postmodernist appropriation and recontextualization, as the jargon of pomo theory would peg their ongoing investigative, acquisitive “project.“ Instead, Foster, a trained, experienced graphic designer and longtime collector of folk art and outsider art has stated plainly that what keeps him on the lookout for the next great find is, quite simply, the sense of excitement that comes with his discovery of each new compelling, inexplicable image.

For Foster, as a self-styled hunter-gatherer who relishes the enigmatic qualities of the images he rescues from oblivion (or the trash), less really is more: the less he knows, with certainty, about the creators, purposes or histories of the photographs that enter his collection, the more they can and do imbue it with their collective, mysterious allure.

Through the eyes of collectors like Foster and, as this exhibition demonstrates, in their hands, as thoughtful presenters of what they have assembled and what they prize, from overexposed snapshots to studiously posed portraits of our distant relations in the human family whose names and stories we may never know, time and again, what was once merely old can become something intriguingly, irresistibly new. ~EMG

Text Copyright © 2005 Edward M. Gomez. All Rights Reserved.

Edward M. Gomez is a graphic designer, critic, journalist, educator and author whose books include the first four volumes of the New Design series (Rockport Publishers) and the monograph Roberto Cortázar (Landucci), about Mexico’s leading contemporary figurative painter. A former staff reporter and writer for TIME in the U.S. and overseas, Gomez writes for the New York Times, Art & Antiques, S.F. Gate (the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site) and other publications, and is the U.S. contributing editor of Raw Vision magazine.

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