Lee Grant – Photography Blog

Archive for December 2007

Spectacular Vernacular!

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So here I am researching the ‘portrait in photography‘ for my sub-thesis (mate, I’m being good!), and I manage to stumble across some fantastic sites dedicated to vernacular photography. Take a look at Square America, the Look at Me Archives and Accidental Mysteries (for a few examples). I am so excited by what I’m seeing that I simply had to write this post. Take a look at the images below to see what I mean:

© 2008 John and Teenuh Foster (from Accidental Mysteries)

Photo 257, No title, No date (courtesy Look at Me)

Photo 382, No title, No date (courtesy Look at Me)

A good part of my thesis centres around the notion of the everyday, with emphasis on the awkward and the intimate in portraiture. The aesthetic of the snapshot appeals to me very much in this regard. Interestingly this aesthetic was theorised quite early on last century (in 1908 ) by the Austrian critic, Joseph August Lux, who wrote a book called Künsterlische Kodakgeheimnisse (Artistic Secrets of the Kodak) in which he championed the use of Kodak cameras like the Brownie. Guided by a position that was influenced by the Catholic critique of modernity, he argued that the ease of use of the camera meant that people could photograph and document their surroundings and thus produce, what he hoped, was a type of stability in the ebb and flow of the modern world (Mark Jarzombek. “Joseph August Lux: Theorizing Early Amateur Photography – in Search of a Catholic Something”,” Centropa 4/1 (January 2004), 80-87.)

The popularity of the banal in photographic subject matter from the 1970s on suggests – to me at least – that we are a nostalgic bunch. In a world where everything (technology, economy, consumption etc..) is literally happening in the blink of an eye (including photography), we can feast our eyes a little on what is vaguely familiar. It gives us reason to pause a little and reflect on the details and minutiae of life, perhaps even encouraging us to re-think the banal of the everyday as something actually beautiful and worthy. It is also a very democratic process, one in which individual consciousness can be quite evident.

Charlotte Cotton in her book ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’ points out:

Candid work that is is artistically powerful is nevertheless difficult, for it initially seeks to identify and portray everyday life and normality, then portray and maintain that sense of the mundane, and yet paradoxically transform the casual into the realm of the praised and notable. The balance between registering the banal, keeping that very sense of the banal, and yet making it unique is therefore fraught with peril, but very powerful when successful.”


For artists working in the deadpan tradition then, a look back into the family album might yield the inspiration they are looking for. For me, lost images like the ones above that are condemned to the seeming emptiness of anonymity, are given new credence for their engaging intimacies and lack of pretentiousness.

Dad, Mum and an even littler Lee

Written by Lee Grant

December 5, 2007 at 6:10 pm