Vernacular photography celebrates everyday life

By Greg Bates

The Peter Cohen Collection

Snapshots never lie and often reveal truths that the subjects might have wanted to keep secret. Courtesy Joel Rotenberg Collection.

Snapshots never lie and often reveal truths that the subjects might have wanted to keep secret. Courtesy Joel Rotenberg Collection.

Peter Cohen used to frequent flea markets quite a bit in the late 1980s.

The Greenwich Village, N.Y., resident had a broad range of interests. While checking out items, Cohen was stuck behind a woman who was making up her mind about a piece of glass.

Cohen grew bored and noticed a Tupperware tub full of snapshots nearby. He decided to take a look. Thumbing through the images that were torn out of a family album, five pieces caught his eye. Cohen slapped down $5. It was a transaction he wasn’t expecting to make.

“I went home and sort of looked at myself and said, ‘I don’t know why I bought these, but I’m going back next week,’” Cohen said. “And I’ve been going back ever since.”

It was the start of a wonderful, new collection for Cohen: vernacular photography. Thirty years later, the 71-year-old is known in the industry circle as the ultimate collector and go-to for any museums around the country that is in search of images for vernacular photography exhibitions.

Vernacular photos at the Detroit Institute of Arts

 Cohen’s collection has appeared in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Morgan Library & Museum and most recently the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA, www.dia.org).

This is an example of a hand-tinted photo. Before the invention of color film, many photography suppliers sold transparent oil colors made for painting onto photographs. These photos might have been done by a professional for a fee, or perhaps with a kit at home.

This is an example of a hand-tinted photo. Before the invention of color film, many photography suppliers sold transparent oil colors made for painting onto photographs. These photos might have been done by a professional for a fee, or perhaps with a kit at home.

 The DIA will be running an exhibition on vernacular photography from Aug. 26 to March 3, 2019.

 

 “I’ve always been interested in snapshots, family pictures and unknown photographers, amateur photography. And I always wanted to do a show,” DIA co-chief curator Nancy Barr said. “I hooked up with Peter Cohen. I got an email from him, and it’s kind of rites of passage for photography curators to visit Peter. He’s a great guy, incredibly personable and has this huge collection of snapshots.”

 The exhibition at the DIA will be a small gallery, displaying about 200 pieces – which were all donated by Cohen. However, it will be impactful, centering on areas of interest in the Detroit market.

 “We worked up a collection that was about automobiles and car culture and we have a wonderful section of African American portraits by unknown studio photographers,” Barr said. “It’s been something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. So many famous photographers are influenced by snapshot photography, so there’s an exchange there with the aesthetic. I think it will be something people will enjoy.”

 During his extensive career collecting vernacular photography, Cohen has amassed over 60,000 images – most in orange boxes organized by categories at his home – and has gifted another 35,000 images over the years to museums.

 Vernacular photography is Cohen’s way of life. It’s also the preferred interest of many collectors around the world.

Snapshot photography is centered around the home and the family, and the pictures usually have banal subjects. But that doesn’t mean snapshots are banal. The contrast between their intended banality and their actual effect on us can be extreme. Courtesy Joel Rotenberg Collection.

Snapshot photography is centered around the home and the family, and the pictures usually have banal subjects. But that doesn’t mean snapshots are banal. The contrast between their intended banality and their actual effect on us can be extreme. Courtesy Joel Rotenberg Collection.

 When Cohen started collecting, the medium was in its infancy. Cohen said vernacular photography is a term that has come into play in just the last 10 or 15 years.

 

 “Vernacular means of the normal, of the every day,” Cohen said. “So, these are snapshots, these are photo ID badges for corporations. They’re industrial photographs that were taken to document procedures. They could be film stills. They could be studio portraits. They could be scientific photographs. There’s a term we use, real photo postcards.”

 Vernacular photography is generally defined as images taken by unknown photographers who snap shots of unknown subjects.

 “On the back of the picture or in the margins on the front, if you get a name, place and the date, it’s like winning the trifecta,” Cohen said. “You might get ‘Bill’ or ‘Sarah, 1942.’ Maybe you’ll get that much information, but the vast, vast majority or photographs that find their way into flea markets and Goodwill stores and antique dealers and what have you, the vast majority have no idea whatsoever.”

The Mark Glovsky Collection

 Another longtime vernacular photography collector, Mark Glovsky, loves the anonymous nature of the photos.

 

“Couch Potato” can let the viewer’s imagination run wild. As one may often ask when viewing a snapshot: “What has recently occurred? And, what is about to happen?”. The image is laden with intriguing clues, from the opened box of Veri-Thin Pretzels on the floor, to the ceramic ashtray loaded with butts, to the open match book and crumbs on the coffee table. But, unlike the “Black Boy with White Duck” this image is loaded with electricity and energy which flows from the direct eye contact from the open-mouthed vixen, the manner in which her top has fallen from her shoulders and her skirt has slid off her knee, hinting at her sensual breasts and fully exposing her thigh, and extending to her twisted bare feet and expressive hands with separated fingers. For me, the image all comes together by the outline of her disheveled black hair and the dark couch set off against the bare white wall which fills the top third of the square photograph. It is a powerful moment, frozen in time.

“Couch Potato” can let the viewer’s imagination run wild. As one may often ask when viewing a snapshot: “What has recently occurred? And, what is about to happen?”. The image is laden with intriguing clues, from the opened box of Veri-Thin Pretzels on the floor, to the ceramic ashtray loaded with butts, to the open match book and crumbs on the coffee table. But, unlike the “Black Boy with White Duck” this image is loaded with electricity and energy which flows from the direct eye contact from the open-mouthed vixen, the manner in which her top has fallen from her shoulders and her skirt has slid off her knee, hinting at her sensual breasts and fully exposing her thigh, and extending to her twisted bare feet and expressive hands with separated fingers. For me, the image all comes together by the outline of her disheveled black hair and the dark couch set off against the bare white wall which fills the top third of the square photograph. It is a powerful moment, frozen in time.

“Sometimes a photograph can be enhanced for me, a snapshot, by a message on the back or the front of a photography that adds another layer to the experience,” said Glovsky, who also collects fine art. “But generally speaking, the vernacular stuff that we collect sort of captures a moment in time and they’re just movements that would just be lost.”

 Glovsky, who lives in Gloucester, Mass., has logged more than 45 years collecting vernacular photography. The 70-year-old isn’t slowing down anytime soon. He has fun finding images that speak to him.

 “Because it’s personal,” Glovsky said. “It’s an opportunity for me to exercise my eye and it is thrilling when you can find an image that sings for you. It’s a rare experience, but if I had more time to devote to it, I would. But I’m still working and consequently, I don’t have as much time as others do.”

 A major attraction for collecting vernacular photography? There are endless possibilities on what topics someone can go after.

 “A woman described it to me some years ago, a lot of us have one or two shoeboxes of pictures. And a lot of us collect something very specific – pictures of poodles or pictures of beagles or maybe dogs in general,” Cohen said. “But most people don’t collect as a wide range of topics as I do or Mark (Glovsky) does.”

 Cohen has “narrowed down” what he collects to 130 different topics. His favorite topics include collecting pictures of dangerous women as well as people who look dangerous.

 “It could be a knife, a gun, a baseball bat, a golf club in their hand,” Cohen said. “Or, it just could be a look. It has nothing to do with any physical object.”

 Some people, Cohen noted, collect pictures of old cars or women who pose on cars.

 “A friend of mine refers to that as a double trophy,” Cohen said. “You’re showing the female and the car both.”

 Cohen also enjoys picking up images that feature roadside attractions.

 “I’m a sucker to buy those,” Cohen said. “I think they’re funny.”

 Glovsky, who also has a collection of about 1,500-2,000 photography books, is a little more reserved in his collecting habits.

 “I’m more interested in the image itself than the subject matter, generally,” Glovsky said. “It’s the composition, the framing, the contrast. What I look for is a photograph that really makes my heart pitter-patter. It’s when you find an image that wasn’t intended to be art but was intended to memorialize an event or a person or a place or an experience. But for me it takes on a whole other level and that’s what I really look for.”

The technical qualities of outmoded photographic processes are sometimes very beautiful. Courtesy Joel Rotenberg Collection.

The technical qualities of outmoded photographic processes are sometimes very beautiful. Courtesy Joel Rotenberg Collection.

 Glovsky collects Kodachrome images – which are non-substantive, color reversal film – because of the different color and intensity that he gets looking at them.

 One of Glovsky’s favorite snapshots from his collection is of an African American nanny holding a Caucasian baby. The photo is framed as such that only the nanny’s arm is seen.

 “That image was very appealing to because of the sociological aspect of the whole thing,” Glovsky said. “So, now I do have 10 or 15 images that are very similar where a white baby is being held by a black nanny who’s obscure or hidden from the image.”

The Joel Rotenberg Collection

 Manhattan, N.Y., resident Joel Rotenberg has been collecting vernacular photography for 35 years. He buys experimentally.

 

Some of Peter’s favorite images are people in mid-air, either jumping, diving, or in this case being tossed by a group holding a blanket. Courtesy Peter Cohen Collection.

Some of Peter’s favorite images are people in mid-air, either jumping, diving, or in this case being tossed by a group holding a blanket. Courtesy Peter Cohen Collection.

 “If something rings a bell for me, it strikes a chord, it seems a little bit interesting, I buy it,” said Rotenberg, who is 65. “I have it around until I feel I understand what I saw. Many pictures I’ve gotten tired of and they’re still in boxes here and I haven’t decided to get rid of them yet.”

 A topic that really interests Rotenberg is freakish accidents.

 “I don’t like a picture with humor – there’s a lot out there,” Rotenberg said. “People doing silly things in snapshots or seeming to do silly things. I want a lot of feeling in a picture. It’s an accidental feeling.”

 Cohen said one of the hottest subject matters right now are portraits of African Americans – either snapshots, studio portraits or Polaroids. Prices for African-American photos have gone from about $5-$10 four years ago to $35-$50 today.

 “There’s a huge interest in the last three or four years in photographs of African Americans,” Cohen said.

“I think people are looking for their roots. I think people are looking to document the African-American experience even though they don’t know who the individual portrayed is.”

Vernacular photo prices

 

Many early snapshot camera manuals would have recommended that the photographer stand with their back to the sun. The result is that the shadow of the photographer is often visibly silhouetted on the subject they were shooting. Courtesy Peter Cohen Collection.

Many early snapshot camera manuals would have recommended that the photographer stand with their back to the sun. The result is that the shadow of the photographer is often visibly silhouetted on the subject they were shooting. Courtesy Peter Cohen Collection.

Since Cohen, Glovsky and Rotenberg are all in their fourth and fifth decades, respectively, of collecting vernacular photography, they have witnessed a swing in prices over the years.

 However, it can still be an inexpensive hobby. Since prices are generally affordable, that allows most people who are interested in vernacular photography a shot at enjoying a collection.

 “It’s fun because it’s kind of under the radar still,” Rotenberg said. “It’s cheap. Even now, it’s cheap. And anyone who has a flea market handy can do it. It certainly gives me great satisfaction to find a wonderful picture, and I was the first to recognize it for what it is. It might have cost me a quarter. That is fun. I enjoy the hunt.”

 

 Cohen said collectors can still pick up images for a dollar or two. But, like fine art, some pictures can fetch six figures. There’s a broad range of prices combing through the several hundreds of thousands of snapshots at any given time on eBay.

 “I would say something in the $20-$25 category is normal,” Cohen said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t find them for $5 and that doesn’t mean you can’t find them for $300.”

 “Vernacular photographs in the beginning were generally available for less than $1 and with the advent of eBay, things began to change,” Glovsky said. “Not only the places where we have found the images but the price of images. Early on in the online experience, eBay allowed you to actually see what other people were buying and you could follow people and you could see what they were paying. I think that was good in a way because it helped us create a little fraternity because we began to know each other. EBay no longer allows you to do that because now it’s very anonymous.”

Changes over the years

 Rotenberg, who owns about 15,000 photos, has watched the competition for photos get fierce, especially on the coasts in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Rotenberg uses Chicago as an example where collectors are at a minimum.

 “Being in a city like New York is positive because there’s a lot of pictures, but it’s negative because of the competition,” Rotenberg said.

 Rotenberg scours eBay to find deals on images, but he’s still old school in the fact he attends big flea markets around New York City every weekend.

One of many oddities in the Peter J Cohen collection, here we see a thick mane of hair, only the edge of a foot revealing the figure that is masked. 

One of many oddities in the Peter J Cohen collection, here we see a thick mane of hair, only the edge of a foot revealing the figure that is masked.

 “Maybe I’m being sentimental this way, but the best way to find a picture is to scrape it off the bottom, so to speak,” Rotenberg said. “You want to hit it at the bottom of the food chain, that way you are the first to recognize it. And it’s a good feeling.”

 Cohen hits up eBay and Etsy but also still makes time to attend flea markets.

 However, as Glovsky points out, heading to flea markets is still the avenue for a collector to find what he’s looking for. He can’t find any obscure images at the bottom of a tub online.

 “It’s harder to find good material in the places where I used to find it,” Glovsky said. “When I was younger, for whatever reason, you could find the kinds of things I was looking for more often at yard sales and garage sales and flea markets. Now, there are actually a lot of pickers out there who frequent those venues and then feed people who are essentially dealers. There weren’t dealers in the vernacular photography business when I started collecting.

 “What I’ve seen over time is the type of images that are available has changed. Obviously, when I started collecting in the early ’70s, there weren’t a whole lot of images available from the ’60s because people hadn’t discarded that stuff. Over time when people die, oftentimes, unfortunately, the heirs and children, dispose of family photo albums and things like that. That’s really fed the market.”

People who generally collect vernacular photography fall within the Baby Boomer range. Once those collectors are no longer around, the medium could change drastically.

The “Bathtub Women” is a simple image that isn’t hard to “read.” The absurdity of the two women, clothed and in a tub together, is formalized by the relationship between the dark oval-shaped mirror on the wall and the oval-shaped white ceramic tub and further enhanced by the wonderful shadows. That the two women are not posed for the camera together, but that one is focused on the other, while that other is focused on the photographer creates a much more interesting dynamic. And, of course, there is the question that will never be answered: “Why are they in the robed women in the tub together?” Courtesy Mark Glovsky Collection.

The “Bathtub Women” is a simple image that isn’t hard to “read.” The absurdity of the two women, clothed and in a tub together, is formalized by the relationship between the dark oval-shaped mirror on the wall and the oval-shaped white ceramic tub and further enhanced by the wonderful shadows. That the two women are not posed for the camera together, but that one is focused on the other, while that other is focused on the photographer creates a much more interesting dynamic. And, of course, there is the question that will never be answered: “Why are they in the robed women in the tub together?” Courtesy Mark Glovsky Collection.

 Glovsky believes people who can think back to the 1950s and ’60s can relate to certain images better than Millennials.

 “Part of it, I think, is that for many people the appreciation of an anonymous snapshot is because of memory and associations,” Glovsky said. “Vernacular photography, for the most, part is the definition generally is they are photographs of everyday life, ordinary things that we see in a different way.”

Rotenberg doesn’t think there have been many new collectors of vernacular photography. The medium is staying steady.

 “The people who do it are kind of old, and in that way it goes with the flea market business in general or the antiques business in general,” Rotenberg said. “Younger people just don’t have as much interest in it, they just don’t. And that’s true of old pictures, too. However, things in Europe have taken off over the past maybe three-four years.”

 The advent of the internet and websites such as eBay and Etsy have made it easier for collectors to pick up vernacular photography. There is plenty of inventory in the market. But that will change.

 “One problem is supply,” Rotenberg said. “We’re not feeling it yet, but there are only so many pictures out there. When we get to pictures without borders, when we get to the 4×6’s that we know now, which came in around 1980 or a little later, interest falls off very quickly. … The 4×6, the kind that we have now, it’s really just an image. It’s not an object. When you have an actual old object that has white borders, that may have a deckle edge, it might be old with dings on it or defacement or whatever. If it has writing on it, all that stuff increases a picture’s interest to me.”

 The digital era, which is a plus in most regards, has also transformed the world. But for vernacular photography collectors, it could be a major downfall.

 “What I’m afraid is going to happen is that there won’t be a whole lot of new inventory in the next 10-20 years because of digital photography,” Glovsky said. “People who are taking photographs on their iPhones – if printed would have been the vernacular photographs of the day, because they’re amateur, accidental things and not intended to be art – those won’t be available. You won’t be able to look through somebody’s images and actually select something that you think is particularly good.” 

Greg Bates is a national freelance journalist. He writes mostly about sports, but dabbles in antiques and is fascinated by the Civil War. His work frequently appears in Sports Collectors Digest. He has also written for USA TODAY, Sports Weekly, The Associated Press, TeamUSA.org and USAHockey.com. Reach him at gregabates@gmail.com.

 


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