Issue #152  11/10/2008
Photo Book Reviews: Two Snapshot Compilations--a Dichotomy of Daily Life

By Matt Damsker


Compiled by Michael Williams, Richard Cahan and Nicholas Osborne. 2008, CityFiles Press, Chicago, IL; hardcover, $45; approximately 200 black-and-white and color images. ISBN No. 0-9785450-1-x; ISBN -13 No. 978-0-9785450-1-7. Information: http://www.cityfilespress.com ; http://www.squareamerica.com ; email: cityfilespress@rcn.com .


Compiled by Paul Garson. 2008, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, IL; hardcover $50; 426 pages; approximately 400 black-and-white plates. Information: http://www.academychicago.com ; phone: +1-800-248-7323.

Now that we're deep into--or perhaps beyond--photography's postmodern era, there's an increasing scholarly interest in the rummage-sale aspects of the medium. More than ever, compilations of "found" photos--anonymous snapshots, photobooth images, or the workmanlike output of small-town portraitists such as the legendary Disfarmer--clamor for collectors' attention and offer a fair amount of analysis. And whether they truly merit so much focus is a fair question: from Susan Sontag onward, photography's elevation of the quotidian to the iconic has been hashed over, while its status as the most democratically accessible art form has been affirmed in countless ways.

These two volumes are the latest to collect snapshots in the form of a cultural overview, positioning their amateur images as potent reflections of the times that spawned them. "Who We Were: A Snapshot History of America" has been culled from thousands of possibilities by its three authors, and they have managed to deliver a compelling chronology of the 20th-century experience, opting for solidly composed and well-exposed examples that suggest the instinctive artistry of the snapshooters. Paul Garson's "Album of the Damned," on the other hand, has more sturm-und-drang going for it--an exploration of the Nazi experience, mostly from the casual, everyday perspective of German soldiers snapshooting each other and the sights of the long war.

Garson's project underscores Hannah Arendt's famous Nazi-inspired conception, "the banality of evil"--the tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without critically thinking about the results of their action or inaction. Thus, these images of jocular soldiers buddying up in the cold, or spending some precious time at home with their wives, children and extended families--not to mention the images of callow Germans in their Hitler Youth outfits, posing with their grandparents--suggest a common humanity that is the ironic contrast to the inhumanity of the Holocaust they were helping to perpetrate.

Indeed, were it not for the swastikas, lightning bolts and jackboots of their uniforms, these at-ease Axis soldiers are poignantly indistinguishable from their Allied counterparts. Most of them exude youthful innocence, enthusiasm and anxiety as they await orders on the Russian front, march stoically in the cold or slog through the mud. But there are other images--of Jewish prisoners being herded through the streets, of execution squads forcing men, women and children to lie down on the ground, of the Gestapo and SS brandishing guns and setting their dogs on helpless victims, of corpses rotting in some anonymous Ukraine shelter, of soldiers slaughtering pigs for food. These snapshots are Garson's grim reminders of the Third Reich's overarching reality.

This is an evocative book, certainly, with helpful annotations and enough chronology to bring the reader, photo by photo, through the progress and degeneration of the Third Reich. And the arresting cover photograph, of an adorable German baby in a carriage, a storm trooper's cap on the baby's head, is marvelously emblematic of Garson's rhetorical stance--that the essential humanity of the German people was subverted by a system imposed on them by fascist tyranny. But this smacks of simplification, unfortunately. It may no longer be enough to affirm Hannah Arendt's formulation, not when the likes of Norman Mailer have upped the ante in deconstructing the German ethos that gave birth to Hitler (in Mailer's novel, "The Castle in the Forest"). Garson's ambitions are more modest, of course--a compilation of amateur photos on a tragic theme--but there is far more to all this than he can muster, and the result is less than satisfying.

Which leads us back to "Who We Were," with its amateur depictions of Americana beautifully presented in a sequence of images that say a lot about the populist power of photography in the New World. Indeed, as the authors note, the advent of popular photos paralleled the last pioneer push across the Great Plains, and so there are striking images of the American landscape in all its unspoiled vastness, with human figures providing a sense of scale; of homesteaders proudly standing before their tiny houses in the middle of nowhere; of the railroads chugging through. There are also images of poverty in the rural South, before the great migration of African-Americans to the northern cities. And then there are the snapshots of city life--the streets, buildings and shop fronts, the signage and the urban, industrial energy that begin to define America as the century wears on.

All of these photos--reproduced here in their actual size, which emphasizes their intimate provenance as mementoes--convey a sense of wonder at the photographic process. Snapshots of the night sky in Atlantic City, NJ reveal only electric signs advertising cigarettes and lampposts along the distant Boardwalk, while various indoor portraits and self-portraits--especially a macabre postmortem photo of a small child laid out for her wake--make clear that the camera was a tool of delight and important documentation for the American masses ("Down with the Suffragetts" [sic] reads a poster proudly displayed by one group of sitters in 1910). And the wonderful examples of hand-tinted snapshots--which flourished in the 1920s and '30s, thanks to Marshall's Photo Colors and other marketed techniques employing transparent oil paints or watercolors--are evidence of a nascent American love of multimedia and gimmickry.

Then there are the snapshots of a changing America--of the oil fields and Model T automobiles that would define the nation, of the immigrant life of the tenements, of the Great Depression with shots of families evicted from their homes and their furniture littering the streets. And there are the snapshots of the World War II era--air raid wardens in their comical gas masks on Midwestern streets, American women at work in factories, U.S. soldiers "over there," women modeling their nylon stockings, and the advent of the nuclear age.

By the 1950s, the post-war glow and the advent of Kodachrome led to snapshots of simple domestic scenes suffused with warm primary colors that bespoke pure American optimism--a white picket fence accented with red flowers; people frolicking against the happy blue of public swimming pools; and even three-dimensional snapshots (of a gaily dressed woman batting a baseball) taken with the popular Stereo Realist Camera.

As the fragmentations and disaffections of the 1960s creep in, snapshots reflect a bit more domestic unraveling and the end of so much innocence--a sequence of images snapped from a black-and-white television set capture the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald and Kennedy's funeral. Soon, the Vietnam and hippie era results in snapshots that reek of shifting mores and psychedelia, presaging the searching, alienated quality of future fine-art photography, especially William Eggleston's.

But, as Richard Avedon is quoted in this volume, "All photos are accurate. None of them is the truth." And so the burden of snapshot compilations such these is ultimately, a heavy one--to distill the larger truths of great art from the smaller truths of amateur work. Where "Album of the Damned" sags under the weight, "Who We Were" shoulders it remarkably well. Compilers Williams, Cahan and Osborn have chosen with an eye for the most expressive potential of every image, and with a determination to capture the breadth of the American experience through a trove of unassuming shots. And so they have.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)