Snapshot Photography and Awkwardness

Family vacation snapshot from the highly addictive Awkward Family Photos website
As summer draws to a close, many of us will no doubt be getting to the task of downloading, arranging, and circulating all of the digital photographs from the various family events, weddings, vacations and BBQs that have made up the leisure moments of the past several months. Some of us will spend the now expected time editing and trashing any of the images that are unflattering, out of focus, or just plain bad, while some of us will take the extra time to “enhance” via Photoshop those pictures that merit the mark of the professional. What will inevitably be lost in this process, or relegated to neglected trash bins on computer desktops forever, will be the many snapshots that didn’t make the cut—those awkward photographs—that still litter many of our family photo albums of the analog variety.

The snapshot photograph is usually understood as an informally composed and quickly taken picture without any artistic or journalistic intent, often “flawed” and possessing the mark of the amateur. Snapshots are what many of us think of today when we look back at family photo albums from a decade or more ago—those material relics that house the personal memories and traces of our imperfect past—and find the less than flattering and often revealing photos which were not as easy to “delete” back then. Before the advent of digital photography, the task of editing and enhancement was of course very different. The time lag between taking and developing a photograph was measured in days and not seconds, and the final pictures had a physical, not digital, trace. Photographs were also far less ubiquitous, more difficult to circulate, and so each individual image seemed to be more valuable, and families were far less likely to trash the “bad ones” (preferring to jam them into old shoe boxes for later sorting).

The nostalgia for this quickly disappearing category of photography is partly responsible for the popularity of the highly entertaining Awkward Family Photos website—a growing repository of the imperfect snapshot (among other badly posed and “professional” portraits). Here, individuals can view and comment on each submission while debating the finer points of technique and intention. In a conceptual move, the website bestows each photograph with evocative and sometimes ironic titles that point audiences to the photo’s “flaw.” The image I featured above is catalogued under “Vacation” and titled “Sugar Magnolia” and subtitled “with just a touch of grey”—enough said. Interestingly, the comments have largely been concerned with whether or not the image was manipulated to achieve its final effect. The original photographer—an unnamed Mom from cyberspace—finally intervened to claim that it was in fact a snapshot taken with a cheap camera on a family trip to San Francisco. Perhaps the American art critic John A. Kouwenhoven summed it up best: “No painting can tell the truth of a single instant; no snapshot can do anything else”

**P.S. Congratulations to my brother and his beautiful bride who were married in a lovely beachside ceremony this past weekend—we hope you have a blast on your European honeymoon and bring back many great snapshots!

Further Reading:

Kotchemidova, C. “Why we say ‘cheese’: Producing the smile in snapshot photography.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 22.1 (2005): 2-25.

Zuromskis, Catherine. “Ordinary Pictures and Accidental Masterpieces: Snapshot Photography in the Modern Art Museum.” Art Journal 67.2 (2008): 104-125.