Priceless Moments: Vintage snapshots

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If you find that you’re struck as much by formal portraits from the later 19th century as you are by deckle-edged, drug-store prints from the period 1920-1960, you should pursue both. What matters, what makes this whole undertaking worthwhile, is the moment when you find an old picture that speaks to you, stirs a memory, opens your eyes, makes you laugh, or breaks your heart.

Best of Auto Wreck Photos
Best of
Auto Wreck Photos

The broad outlines of the history of photography are well known to many people, but a quick refresher course won’t be out of place here. We live in a culture of photographic images, so much so that we tend to forget that until about 150 years ago, only the wealthy could surround themselves with images – painted images, in this case – of themselves, their family members and their surroundings. The invention of photography in the early 1800s would ultimately permit ordinary people to make their own pictures, but not immediately. In its infancy, the new medium was dominated by professionals who had the technical skills, the resources and the stamina to set themselves up as photographers.

By the 1890s, with the introduction of the ready-to-use Kodak, amateurs with no special training and no commercial aspirations could take photographs. The simple box camera, roll film and convenient photo-finishing made photography affordable for the masses. At first thousands, then millions, of people had cameras. As the Kodak ads of the time put it, “You press the button, we do the rest.”

For our culture as a whole, the results were profoundly transformational. Democratic technology had opened up for everyone a means of expression and validation once reserved for the few. Photographs in an album or in a box under the bed gave people the means to document their own lives.

Amateur pictures often have an amateurish quality, but the best of them express – without pretense or affectation – feelings that we all recognize. They capture a moment in time or make a comment on the human condition, and the beauty of it is that these amateur photographers, as often as not, didn’t anticipate the results they were getting. They just snapped the picture.

But, among all the photos in that basket or album you’re leafing through, only a few will stand out. How do you pick out the good ones from the routine ones of dogs doing tricks, Christmas trees and picnics on the beach?

What Makes a Good Snapshot?
If your interest in old pictures is limited to a single subject, you don’t actually need to confront the whole question of the cultural and artistic value of casual photographs. You know what you’re looking for. We know people who collect in this way, saying: “Find us some birthday cakes, pit bulls, or cigar store Indians and call us. We’ll make some money.”

There is an active market in topical collecting, but topical photos aren’t necessarily good snapshots, and more people are narrowing their searches, not by subject but by qualities in the pictures that are easier to show than they are to explain.

What makes a good snapshot, then? What makes one of these pictures ordinary and the other extraordinary?

There are several qualities to look for in these old pictures, attributes that confer both artistic value and monetary value. First, there’s the element of humor, of whimsy. Humor is one of the defining qualities in folk art generally, and it shows up frequently in vintage snapshots.

Second, there’s technique. Photographic technique involves framing, composition, the use of light and shadow, and perspective. The best vernacular photos show a technical skill that in many cases must have been as much good luck as good management. Most casual photographers stand too far away from their subjects; some of them manage to decapitate their subjects; many of them fail to notice intruding telephone poles and shadows.

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