Priceless Moments: Vintage snapshots

vintage snapshots

This is an exclusive excerpt of the new Warman’s® Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide 2012 (Krause Publications, 2011) by Mark F. Moran. See Shop.Collect.com to buy your copy directly from the publisher for the lowest price available.



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A photograph is more than visual information. It freezes a moment in time, a glimpse of the way things were, and, we hope, the way things still are. The best of these pictures tell more than a narrow story. They say something about the human condition and life itself. When you can look at a snapshot and say, "I've been there -- I know the feeling," you are looking at a photo that ought to be preserved.

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Following some obscure inspiration, though, a few amateur photographers put their cameras and their subjects in exactly the right places. In their pictures the arrangement of lines and shapes is pleasing to the eye, and we realize immediately that this is a pleasure most snapshots don’t give.

Great Ships in New York Harbor: 175 Historic Photographs, 1935-2005
Great Ships in New York Harbor: 175 Historic Photographs, 1935-2005

At the other extreme there are snapshots in which the technique is so terrible that the pictures take on a certain charm despite the fingertips over the lens. We’re now taught never to have our shadows in the picture, yet these folks, freshly armed with early Kodaks, thought so much of their shadowy pictures that they preserved them in albums, the memory being greater than the shot. How revealing is that?

Third, the writing on vintage pictures or the damage they have sustained will sometimes give them an appeal they might otherwise lack. Some photographers – or family members charged with keeping track of family pictures – carefully identified every picture in their albums, but some people wrote right on their prints. Some even did hand coloring. This kind of engagement with the image is fun to see in our tidy digital age.

Fourth, there are old pictures that deliver to us intact an unrehearsed, intimate moment or perception. Most snapshots were taken, and are still taken, of predictable subjects. Most were, and are, set up in predictable ways. The sameness is such that two families might almost exchange photo albums and not know the difference. They’d still be looking at prom dresses, birthday cakes, new cars, sunsets over the lake, and so on.

Subjects not on the standard short list immediately get our attention, especially when they afford us a glimpse into the life and times of the photographer.  

In our own searches we’ve found straight-ahead pictures of cars, radios, television sets, living room sets, and even one washing machine. You might want to categorize such pictures as topical – washing machine collectors? – but the point is that these aren’t just pictures of possessions. They’re statements of the owners’ pride in having achieved a certain standard of living, and the box camera gave them a way to express that pride. We’ve all felt that way about something, but perhaps we’re so used to a surfeit of consumer goods that we’ve forgotten the perception behind these pictures.

Finally, there’s the nostalgia that draws us into old photographs. The long dresses, the touring cars, the wide front porches, the prices on the signs in old lunchrooms, the bicycles with huge front wheels – so much in these images evokes a past that we want to believe in.

But we’re responding to more than just the physical details of American life as it used to be. We’re seeing and sensing the values of those vanished days, personal and social values. We respond to and collect snapshots that might be seen as making up a kind of collective American family album. They help us understand our past and, therefore, our present. The best old pictures have something to say to us, as well as something to show us.

A photograph is more than visual information. It freezes a moment in time, a glimpse of the way things were, and, we hope, the way things still are. The best of these pictures tell more than a narrow story. They say something about the human condition and life itself. When you can look at a snapshot and say, “I’ve been there – I know the feeling,” you are looking at a photo that is superior to the others in the basket and ought to be preserved.

Reading Snapshots
We don’t generally expect snapshots to hold more than personal or family interest. We turn to the snapshots in our photograph albums to confirm – or, at times perhaps, to create – our memories of childhood, of houses and holidays, of aunts and uncles and cousins and classmates not seen for years. We certainly don’t expect the discoveries associated with the experience of art, but a few snapshots do, in fact, yield such discoveries – if we look closely.

In the culture of our day, we are surrounded by a superabundance of pictures, most of them taken and published for commercial purposes. There is little novelty in these pictures, and we have grown lazy in our encounters with them.

To make the disclosures vernacular images are capable of making, they deserve more than a cursory glance, more than the second we are apt to give them.

Cautions and Pitfalls for the Snapshot Collector
The first thing to be said under this heading is that Internet auctions like eBay have transformed the collecting of early photographs. Before eBay we simply kept our eyes open in antique shops, antique malls and secondhand stores. Most visits to all three produced nothing. It was a rare dealer who saw the cultural and potential monetary value of old pictures.

As we all know, the quest is part of the fun of collecting, and we wouldn’t discourage anyone from pulling off the highway at the next group mall, but while more dealers now have the idea, you shouldn’t get your hopes up too high. Even when there are snapshots to look through, there are many more mediocre ones than there are interesting ones. Today, though, without leaving the couch you can browse scores or hundreds or thousands of old photographs.

At any given moment there may be as many as 100,000 listings on eBay under the broad heading of “Photographic Images.”  Down the left-hand side of that opening page, there are all kinds of ways to narrow the search. You can hope to be more efficient by picking a cutoff date (“pre-1950”), by picking particular subject matter, a price range, a size range, a photographic genre and so on.

The catch is that not all sellers seem to understand or follow these distinctions. You’ll have to experiment with search parameters to see what works for you, but don’t be surprised if you find snapshots keeping company with newspaper and wire service photos, Hollywood publicity stills, commercial photo postcards, photo negatives, photo booth strips, photogravure, and corporate publicity shots. With a little practice, you’ll be able to sort it all out without spending every weekend in front of the computer.

The goal is to build a “watch list” of dealers who sell what you’re interested in. Bookmark their sites or add them to your favorites on eBay.

Here are a few general principles to bear in mind:

Some snapshots are quite small, in some cases no bigger than 1 inch by 1 1/2 inches. It’s hard to appreciate the detail in such small images unless they’re scanned and enlarged, as they generally are by eBay sellers; it’s also hard to display such small images.

Distinguish between vintage prints and modern reprints. (There are online sellers who   pirate the images of other sellers and may or may not disclose that their pictures are, in fact, digital copies and not prints from back in the day.)

Don’t worry too much about condition. Don’t bypass photos that have been written on. It may be the writing that makes them interesting. There are other condition issues –  tears, repairs, tape and album paper residue, stains, fading, silvering – that don’t really detract from old snapshots as long as the content is still mostly there.

Albums are tempting, but beware. Most times, there are only a few great pictures in a single album. If you are buying albums with the intent to break up and resell, understand the work involved in separating and scanning the individual photos.



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More Images:

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A stoic grandmother on a motorcycle is a charming image.
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Below, a witty snapshot in which the photographer's shadow is a member of the family.
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We are probably looking at three generations here, and the customary thing would be to line them up, step back 10 feet, and shoot. Instead we have a game of checkers, and we immediately get a strong sense of the pleasure the three of them take in the game and in each other's company.

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