Photography in Theory and Everyday Life: A review of Catherine Zuromskis, Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images
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Photography in Theory and Everyday Life
A review of Catherine Zuromskis, Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images
A review of Catherine Zuromskis, Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013.

What typically escapes interpretation and analysis is the commonplace. This is certainly true of snapshot photography, a practice so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. Long dismissed by art historians as unworthy of aesthetic consideration, snapshot photography has only recently captured the attention of visual culture scholars, who have begun to examine snapshot images as both personal artifacts and cultural documents. In Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images, Catherine Zuromskis sets out to explore the genre “as a public and political form of visual expression in the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century” (10). Zuromskis argues that because the “social life” of snapshot photography resides in both the private and public realms—in that its images are intended for family and friends, yet are consumed through conventional codes—the genre uniquely lends itself to a sense of communal belonging, and thus has the potential to aid the construction of alternative group identities. She introduces this argument by juxtaposing two images: a tourist snapshot of a little girl standing in front of the White House, and a snapshot of a group of drag queens photographing each other’s performances of femininity. The first snapshot reinforces convention, and the second subverts it, albeit by invoking the conventions it subverts.

Zuromskis devotes the book’s first chapter to defining the genre of snapshot photography. The following four chapters are then organized around a series of case studies that seek to elucidate this definition. Zuromskis’s first chapter is the most important in the volume, for defining snapshot photography is not as straightforward a task as it may seem. After all, any photograph could be considered a “snap.” Theorizing the genre as both a set of “image-objects” and cultural practices, Zuromskis addresses the production of snapshots, as well as their display, exchange, editing, and ownership. Although she carefully nuances the difficulties involved in defining the genre, her lack of a conclusive definition creates difficulties for her argumentation throughout the book. Her use of the term “vernacular” often overlaps with that of “snapshot,” whereas in the book’s introduction, Zuromskis describes a snapshot as a photograph taken by an “amateur” and “made for use within the private sphere of the … family” (2). Yet this definition does not hold in the cases of the photographs featured in the book’s last two chapters, taken by artists Andy Warhol and Nan Goldin, nor does it apply to many of the photographs included in the Family of Man exhibition discussed in Chapter Three—especially those taken by professional photojournalists and produced for public consumption.

Despite these inconsistencies, Zuromskis’s first chapter makes a very important contribution to critical photography discourse: it argues against the longstanding notion of photography as an inherently aggressive act in which the photographer exercises power over what is photographed. This formulation, most closely associated with Susan Sontag’s influential book On Photography (1973), has undergirded feminist arguments about photography’s masculine gaze for decades. Zuromskis raises the possibility of a more intimate and shared (or shifting) power dynamic within the genre of the snapshot, and notes the snapshot’s potential to record one’s own vision of oneself and of history.

The book’s five chapters stand brilliantly on their own. One might argue that they collectively function to define snapshot photography according to the contradictions that, as Zuromskis puts it, “lie at the heart of snapshot culture” (111). For example, in Chapter Two, Zuromskis posits “snapshot culture,” as rendered in the 2002 film One-Hour Photo and the long-running television series Law and Order: SVU, as combining the idealism of American family values with the forces that threaten to corrupt these values, through a process she cleverly terms “snapshot perversion” (93). Zuromskis attempts to define snapshot photography not by its “essence,” but by that which undermines its perceived qualities, reinforcing Roland Barthes’s notion that “the photograph shows us everything and nothing” (111). Although we may accept the “truthfulness” of...