Dismissal Via Snapshot

Kate, Duluth, Minnesota, November 2012

Above is one of the twenty-five photos I was presenting for a portfolio review/critique that I did in Minneapolis in January 2013. All was going as well as my terrible public speaking skills would allow, and then, from the back of the room…

“How are these not just snapshots?”

Boom! Dismissal via snapshot Love it.

“What part of finding a person willing to be a subject in a photo, scheduling a time to come photograph them, dragging fifty pounds of gear into their house, circling their property while setting up a camera in various locations until I find the spot where all the background elements are most appealing to me, and getting the subject to relax and not have a silly smirk on their face before waiting for just the right instance to nail the photo in a single exposure sounds ‘snappy’?” is a quick rebuttal using the process of making a photo. But why the hell Snapshot such a dirty word for photographers anyways?

Anatomy of a snapshot

First up, let me crack open my family photo album and explore a few types of snapshots.

The Bad Snapshots

First of all, I’m a huge fan of the so-call Snapshot Aesthetic. But just like everything else in existence, there are good snapshots, and there are terrible snapshots. And also like everything else in existence, the terrible ones dominate in quantity. To me, these are the kind my mom might take where everyone’s attention is gathered first. Then all the subjects are told to line up, stick their cheeks together and give a nice big toothy grin.

Family Snapshot

These are the snapshots I can mostly do without. I see them and they just feels like propaganda. “See how happy we are ALL the time! Don’t we have such great, perfect lives?” Which, of course, isn’t true at all. People have emotions. People fight & get angry at each other. People have vulnerabilities and cry from time to time. People actually get happy and smile on their own! The only expression that doesn’t look faked in this photo is my lack of a forced smile. But nowadays, it isn’t even a problem if someone doesn’t want to crack a smile as we have cameras that will fix that for you. Yup, changing reality to an idyllic one of always smiling. Luckily, I don’t think my current portraits look like this, so let me move onto to what I think makes snapshots work.

The Good Snapshots.

Here are a few things I look for in snapshots. The snapshots I like will have at least one of the following aspects. Great snapshots will blend many of them.

Honest Emotion

Snapshot post temper tantrum

Here is a photo of me as a lad falling asleep in tears amidst a pile of whatever it is I just shredded during a tantrum. Idyllic happiness? Nope. Honest? Damn straight! And I love it more for that. Not saying that there needs to be some kind of misery in a photo to make it good. Just try sourcing the smiles by waiting for the subject to do something that makes them do it without you telling them to smile for the camera. Or better yet, do something nice for them that you know will make them smile and take the photo without instruction. Guaranteed to be better.

A Sense of Time

Hopefully something in the photo aside from the time stamp burned into the corner can give a general sense of when the photo was taken.

Snapshot with Computer. 1990s

Huge CRT monitor? Carmageddon, Wing Commander, and SimCity 2000 on 3.5 inch floppies!? Hello mid 1990s. Does it matter that I kind of look like a dip with a big zit? Nope.

A Glimpse of The Surreal

The Legendary Family Toilet Photo

Pretty much the best photo in our family album.

Can someone who doesn’t know the subject appreciate it?

Admit it, you laughed out loud at that last photo. But Lets break away from my family album for a moment and look at this photo.

Woman entering a car

Do I know who the woman is? Nope. Do I know where it was taken? Not at all. Still, without a scrap of knowledge about who this is, I enjoyed the image enough that it compelled me to buy it from an antique store to add to my anonymous collection. Whoever took this photo, and people who knew the woman throughout her life would probably have a completely different experience. They would have memories triggered of the things she did with her life, and the moments they had together. Things that can’t be discerned from this one photo. To me, just an interesting moment from a time I never got to experience.

So, Snapshot, that filthy disgusting word.

If it wasn’t obvious, all of the traits I credit a good snapshot having just happen to be the same traits that I look for while creating my own photos. But what is the one key thing all these photos have in common? No one really knows who took them. At least with my own family photos I have some good guesses, and of all those guesses I can pretty much guarantee that none of them were by anyone claiming to be an artist.

This, I believe, leads to where the Dismissal via snapshot comes into play. Take the following photo for example.

Kid Snapshot

I totally love this photo. The composition is strong, and it relates the energy of children play quite well I think. I wish I had taken it, but I didn’t. This is just a result of what happened when I handed a point & shoot camera to my seven year old niece and let her burn up the last eight exposures on the roll of film. She’s never studied any of the photo books in my collection, taken a college art course, or probably even knows what the rule of thirds is. Yet, she managed to knock one out of the park.

The thing is, photography is such a technology riddled art form, that the ability to take an OK photograph without years and years of training is a relatively easy thing to do, and has been since the 1880s. Though the feeling I get is that when photographers dismiss other photographers by being too snapshotty, it is kind of like them saying “Hey asshole! Don’t you know that we are suppose to have expensive digital cameras, a ton of studio strobes, a big tripod and $2500 lenses to take photographs that grandma literally cannot replicate the look of with her old point & shoot camera from 1987? Quit letting the peasants feel like they can be an artist too without making the same financial investments we have!”

But the thing is, why does Grandma take such a terrible snapshot of whatever it is she wants a snapshot of? Most likely there is an emotional or human connection to the subject. No worries of optimal f-stop, Leica Glow, or Bokeh. Just a connection between a non-photographer and the subject. It’s pure. It’s real.

So how about this. Instead of putting all the betterness of having quality equipment and technical experience first by making truly forgettable images and then trying to drum up some sort of emotional response by titling it “Majestic morning awoken by golden illumination”, start with the snapshot. Start with the connection. figure out why grandma cares about the subject and make that the keystone in a photograph. Then pile on the better gear, experience and technical tricks to make it a better damn photograph than grandma can take.

Snapshot isn’t a slight. Snapshot is a compliment. I embrace the snapshot.


Some real world Dismissal Via Snapshots.

Sally Mann. One Star Rating

Sally Mann – Immediate Family