Before analyzing Melissa Catanese’s work Dive Dark Dream Slow, I feel the need to introduce a few points about what has come to be called “vernacular photography.” In doing so, I will try to emphasize the difference, if any, between vernacular and snapshot photography.
The word “vernacular” appeared for the first time in the English language in the 17th century. The term stems from the Latin word “vernaculus,” and literally means “native to a country, domestic, native.” Looking at the Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary, the word vernacular stands for “the language of ordinary speech rather than formal writing.” Vernacular is also used in architecture to define a specific style that tries to consider the historical and environmental context of specific buildings.
The usage of this term in photography reveals a distinct connotation from the one attached to it when we refer to language or architecture. When a specific language is considered vernacular, we imply that this is slang or a colloquial dialect, not a codified and official language, although some sort of cultural codification obviously exists. Vernacular architecture is designed – and here we might ask whether or not this is genuinely vernacular – by being adapted to a certain kind of territory, using materials found on the spot.
Defining vernacular photography is highly problematic. In vernacular photography, we observe photographs made by amateur photographers rather than professionals, assuming that their intent was not the realization of a perfect picture for a client or an exhibition. At the same time, it would be wrong to assume that this kind of photography is not codified, unstructured, unaffected by cultural and social influences. Sometimes these photographs don’t even look amateurish. We identify vernacular photography merely as old photographs made by people other than professionals photographers, but the issue is clearly more complex than that.
The Oxford Companion to the Photograph1 Robin Lenman (ed.), The Oxford Companion to the Photograph. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). describes vernacular photography as “aesthetically unpretentious, generally functional images made by amateur snapshooters or grass-roots professionals (e.g. itinerant tintypists, photowallahs, or jobbing local portraitists) for everyday purposes such as creating keepsakes or recording mundane.” I totally disagree with the idea that vernacular photography is “aesthetically unpretentious,” because I’m convinced that even amateur photographers shoot their images trying to achieve a certain effect and aesthetic, no matter how consciously they do it. One of the central questions around photography is: to what extent is photography a conscious act?
The amateur photographer, as does the professional, chooses the subject and frame of his photograph, and the resulting image is influenced by the culture and social norms of the time. To say that vernacular photography is aesthetically unpretentious is incorrect because photography is automatically aesthetic. There is nothing natural or innate about photographs or photography, even in a domestic setting.
At times vernacular photography is casually passed off as snapshot photography. Kodak’s famous slogan “you press the button, we do the rest” clearly marked the advent of photography as a tool for the masses. With a new simple and accessible technique, is photography really free from any kind of aesthetic concern?
Does snapshot/vernacular/domestic photography possess its own intrinsic aesthetic? Or is this kind of photography rather the result of our cultural and social moment, imposed by and inseparable from the photographic mechanism, the technique we use and the idea that we already have of images?
We interacted with images long before the advent of photography, but only with photography were we allowed to use an easy tool in order to create our own image, or at least, we were persuaded to think so.
When we decide to photograph a certain subject we have to face numerous complications. To name a few: the choice and selection of the subject, the setting, the frame, the photographic mechanism (time and exposure). These complications make no exception for amateur photographers.
The critique of snapshot photography has changed substantially over the last forty years. The perception of images and the role of photography as a “democratic” tool have shifted radically, and photography’s democratic nature has been called into question. In my research, I’ve discovered two titles written in the 1970s which take very different approaches to the topic of snapshot photography.
The first one, The Snapshot2Jonathan Green, “The Snapshot” in Aperture, vol. 19, no. 1  (New York: Aperture, 1974)., was an issue of Aperture dated 1974, edited and introduced by Jonathan Green. It is a collection of short texts by various professional photographers, among the others Tod Papageorge, Paul Strand, Emmet Gowin, Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand. It highlights two different aspects of so-called snapshot photography: on one hand, the domestic ritual of photographing everyday events, using the familiar environment as a rich ground for extended photographic projects (Emmet Gowin, Wendy Snyder Macneil); on the other, the quick and instinctive reaction to our surroundings, a part of which has been frequently defined as street photography (Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Joel Meyerowitz).
The first short text in Snapshot was written by Lisette Model, who states: “I am a passionate lover of the snapshot, because of all photographic images it comes closest to the truth.” Statements of this kind should be considered an alert sign while reading these books from the 1970s. Even if the idea of truthfulness has always been associated with photography, I’m pretty convinced that both professional and amateur images are the result of aspirations, dreams, and natural or induced needs. This means that snapshot photography reveals something about the society of a specific time, but simultaneously the same image is also a construction of that society, not a true and unequivocal and reliable document.
This issue of Aperture is certainly open to this discussion. I would like to assume that Jonathan Green chose to talk about snapshot photography through the voices of professional photographers in order to question the real meaning of the term. Indeed, Paul Strand wrote in his contribution: “I have always taken the position that the word snapshot doesn’t really mean anything. To talk about it you almost have to begin by asking: When is a snapshot not a snapshot? When is a photograph not a snapshot?”
As a whole, the book treats snapshot photography as a technique more than as an amateurish practice. The development of photographic cameras made photography accessible to numerous non-professionals, and the result was the production of all kinds of images. The idea that snapshot photography is only the result of accidental, instinctive and casual attempts made by non-experts and unpretentious photographers is, in the end, untenable.
The second book I’ve discovered, published for the first time in 1977, is even more unsophisticated about the role of snapshot photography. The book’s title is The Snapshot Photograph – The Rise of Popular Photography 1888-1939, by Brian Coe and Paul Gates3 Brian Coe and Paul Gates, The Snapshot Photograph: The Rise of Popular Photography 1888-1939. (London: Ash and Grant, 1977).. It presents a brief history of photographic tools, especially a series of early Kodak cameras. The selection of so-called snapshot images here is just an accumulation of historical clichés and visual tropes, probably originally published in newspapers and magazines. Once again, the term snapshot is distorted and unclear.
Taking up an opposing view, I think that the essay “Now Is Then: The Thrill and the Fate of Snapshots” by Marvin Heiferman in Now Is Then – Snapshots from The Maresca Collection4Marvin Heiferman, Now Is Then – Snapshots from The Maresca Collection, (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008)., published in 2008, thoroughly explains the difference between the naive idea of photography as a democratic medium and our present understanding of vernacular and snapshot photography. The essay, which I highly recommend, begins with the following passage:
“Snapshots are complex and willful little pictures. It is only because they are so small and so frequently and easily made that we think of them as innocent. […] Snapshots may appear to be naive, but they are seldom innocent. Amateur photographers do not take pictures like professionals, but the pictures they produce are often no less rich and multifaceted. Snapshots reflect the needs and desires of all who make and appear in them, as well as the social, commercial, and visual words in which they are produced.”5Marvin Heiferman, “The Thrill and the Fate of Snapshots” in Now Is Then, 41.
The book shows a selection of photographs from Frank Maresca’s collection that were donated to the Newark Museum. The collected and found photographs spark our curiosity and interest and they also encourage us to think about the photographic medium and its power. With these photographs, we are confronted directly with the past while acknowledging that the photographic image also has the ability to fool us.
The fascination with found photographs has recently engaged many collectors, curators, and photographers. One of the reasons for this intense fascination might be the almost complete disappearance of analog snapshot photography from our everyday life. Nowadays we are overwhelmed by a flood of images and photographs thanks to our more than accessible digital tools and networks, allowing us to make those images and even publish them in a matter of seconds. However, we are mostly unaware of our emotional attachment to personal photographs.
By definition, digital tools are ephemeral. Therefore we cannot presently know if our digital images will survive as those found photographs already have. “Every photograph that captures a moment in time simultaneously documents its passing,” says Heiferman in his essay. But our time is passing so quickly, due to the advance of technology, and it is so filled with uncertainty, that most of the huge amount of photographs we take for personal reasons will simply vanish in the near future.
Looking at vernacular/snapshot/domestic/found (the list of terms is constantly expanding) photography, we fantasize about the narrative gap that those images produce. In another essay from Now Is Then, Nancy Martha West discusses the role of found photographs and our desire to “write a ‘discovery narrative’ for snapshots.”6Nancy Martha West, “Telling Time: Found Photographs and the Stories They Inspire” in Now Is Then, 81. One of the questions that she asks, one of the most important for our discussion, is the following: “So why is it that we are not content to let found photographs remain silent” if they are, as Weston Naef stated, purely visual and liberated from textuality? Our need to fictionalize the world is inescapable. The process of fictionalizing never ends: it is a chronic condition affecting human beings, particularly evident in the act of representing ideas and giving voice to the imagination. The desire to communicate these thoughts and all things imagined is transformed into a codified language, whether verbal or visual.
Melissa Catanese’s selected photographs for her book Dive Dark Dream Slow were obtained via her access to the massive collection of found photographs gathered by the collector Peter J. Cohen. Her book is the result of multiple selective methods: the selection of the subject and frame, determined by the photographer; the collector’s passion and his acute eye for finding the right pieces for his collection; the editor’s ability to write a “discovery narrative” for these found photographs. The editor is Catanese herself. She uses a method similar to literary composition in order to construct a solid narrative and evoke abstract feelings. The title, Dive Dark Dream Slow, is a poetic and lyrical opening that anticipates what we are going to see inside the book: a dance of bodies and dream-like apparitions.
Melissa Catanese, with her assemblage, creates a leap into our subconscious and touches us deeply. The selected images generate an initial path for our thoughts, but they allow enough space for our imagination to roam. We are forced to fill the gap between the disclosed and the unrevealed. We want to fill up the empty spaces between the concrete and knowable and the endlessly unknowable, in a narrative exploration made of images of men and women that we recognize as actual men and women of a specific time, and the impenetrable past and the quality of photographs as traces of something that is intrinsically absent and irremediably intangible.