Priceless Moments: Vernacular photographs are a snapshot of folk art

Have you ever seen baskets of snapshots in an antique mall and wondered why they’re there? Your first reaction might be: Who wants someone else’s memories? But if you have some time, you might flip through the basket or, if you’re lucky, through an entire album that has somehow gotten away from the family that made it. You’ll find no end of couples standing on front sidewalks staring at the camera, Halloween costumes, new babies, fishing trophies …

Life in Civil War America
Life in
Civil War America

One picture catches your eye, though. There’s a quirky aspect to it. Maybe couples are dancing on a frozen pond. Maybe the women are wearing men’s clothes, and the men women’s clothes. Maybe the light is unusual or the composition striking. The fact that you have singled out this photo for closer inspection means you may be ready to become a collector.

You would then ask yourself: How are these photos valued? What’s a fair price to pay?
The short answer lies in the law of supply and demand, and demand for interesting snapshots has been increasing. Vintage snapshots have become collectible for three reasons. First, even the best pictures are still relatively cheap. Second, the lowly snapshot has been the subject of at least half a dozen critical books and an equal number of museum shows. Third, more people are becoming sophisticated and aggressive in their pursuit of the best examples. And there is almost certainly a fourth reason: As our American lives become more challenging, we become nostalgic for our American past.   

Supply is harder to measure. While we collectors bemoan the declining number of good snapshots, growing awareness of the value of the snapshot should mean that many photos once headed for the dump will now find their way to the marketplace.

As you browse for antiques, ask dealers if they ever have any old photographs or photograph albums. The more often that question is asked, the more likely it is that you will be able to build collections.

The Place of the Snapshot in the Photography World
It can be more difficult than you might expect to define the term “snapshot” and, with that definition in mind, to go looking for the kinds of photographs you might collect. Some collectors, gallery owners, and museum curators favor the term “anonymous photographs,” a term that doesn’t separate everyday snapshots from the work of equally anonymous press photographers and studio photographers. Some use the term “found photographs,” and some speak of “vernacular photography.”

It might seem reasonable to start by separating the work of amateur photographers from that of professional photographers, but in practice this distinction can be hard to apply. In a practical sense, then, the would-be collector should be prepared to cast a wide net, should be willing to look over any and all old pictures dealers may have in their shops or their booths. They should also be willing to range freely over the categories eBay has created for auctions of photographic images. (We’ll return to the subject of eBay later in this article.)

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