WASHINGTON (AP) — Say Cheese! There's a chance your picture may be hanging in the National Gallery of Art.
The images could have come straight out of the family photo album — birthday parties, farm life, road trips and soldiers at work (and play) during World War II. About 200 anonymous pictures make up the new exhibit "The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978." It's the first show of snapshot photography at the National Gallery of Art and the first major exhibit to study the evolution of such imagery in America.
Curators wanted to chronicle the development of amateur photography from the invention of the Kodak camera in 1888 through changes in technology, styles and subjects of these homemade pictures over 90 years. They used the vast collection assembled by Robert Jackson over the past decade from flea markets, art fairs and sales on eBay.
"You respond to some of them personally. You respond to some of them more in a cultural sense," said Diane Waggoner, assistant curator of photographs at the gallery. "I really hope people will appreciate the kind of creativity and freedom that you see in the snapshot from just everyday people."
Quirky, trick photography was popular from the start as new photographers started playing with their own cameras. They used depth and fiddled with the foreground to make a man's feet look larger than life, and took fun shots of people and pets with their heads poking through newspapers — explained in the exhibit as a pun on "breaking the news."
Some pictures can be traced back to a specific place and time, such as the girl with a bird perched on her head in 1939 somewhere in South Dakota. Others reflect the times visually — two women wearing gas masks and posing in the yard with their legs crossed in the 1940s, World War II soldiers playing for the camera in their free time or a photo of a TV screen when astronauts first landed on the moon.
By the late 1970s, people were taking nearly 9 billion snapshots a year following the invention of the Polaroid. The exhibit traces a new sense of voyeurism that sends cameras beyond birthday parties into more intimate settings, even the bedroom and bathroom. Curators attribute that to the influence of Hollywood.
Jackson's favorite images are some of the trick photos people made by trial and error or even by accident. One depicts a headless man with four legs pointing in all different directions.
"The double exposures are the kinds of things I just love," said Jackson, a financial analyst who collects photographs in his spare time. "It's very magical. They're just great pictures."
Jackson originally approached the National Gallery about offering his collection for a scholarly exhibit in 2000 and worked closely with curators as they developed the exhibit, which opened this month. A public symposium on Nov. 10 will feature photographers, scholars and collectors discussing the history of snapshots. The show runs through the end of the year then travels to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, from Feb. 16 through April 27, 2008.
"It is sort of a great recognition of the snapshot itself — for all the people that sort of collect, as I collect, and deal in this material," Jackson said.
The National Gallery, which began collecting photographs in 1990, is hopeful the exhibit and accompanying book will spur new studies of the history of snapshots.
"It's a history that's sort of ending at the moment," Waggoner said.
Photography isn't dying. It's thriving, she said. But the physical quality of the snapshot seems to be on its way out, as computers become the new scrapbooks for pictures.
"With digital photography ... people really relate to their photographs very differently, and you take them differently," she said. "Snapshot photography is sort of becoming a historical phenomenon."