bioephemera

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Klingle Ford Bridge Wreck, 1925
National Photo Company Collection

Courtesy of Shorpy: proof that even in 1925, traffic on Connecticut Avenue was hell.

This wreck occurred about a mile or so from my apartment, near the National Zoo. As a work of art, it’s uninspiring. But somehow its placement within my personal territory gives it a certain poignant fascination, a sort of urban archaeological authority.

John Updike recently wrote a book review for the New Yorker on “the art of snapshots,” in which he said,

My own shoeboxes of curling, yellowing snapshots derive their fascination almost entirely from my personal connections with the depicted matter–grandparents and parents, cousins and schoolmates, houses I once lived in, vistas and furniture lifted from my private temps perdu. The fascination extends to snapshots of my father in his First World War soldier’s uniform and my mother in her college hockey outfit, youthful and hopeful in the void before I was born, but thins with snapshots they saved of people I never knew, and reaches the vanishing point in stiff studio portraits, not snapshots at all, of ancestors to whom no narrative has been attached. A little halo of photographic illumination, in other words, accompanies us in our traversal of the decades, and any aesthetic or sociological values that the photographs possess are incidental. With a poignancy peculiar to photographic images, the past is captured while its obliteration is strongly implied.


A news photo like this, of anonymous people congregating at the scene of disaster, is universal. Free of conscious artistry or deliberate framing, it’s perfectly situated to make death seem intimate. By now, death has caught the car’s driver, every person in the picture, even the photographer: photos are, as Susan Sontag said (and Updike reminds us), memento mori:

To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. . . . A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence.

Our affection for the snapshot as nostalgia is well-represented online. Two of the best sites are Shorpy, a trove of high-resolution vintage photography, where travel snaps abut Dorothea Lange portraits, and Square America, which is less frequently updated, but full of blurry and evocative “mistakes.” Even better are the snapshots you personally discover in family albums, or in junk store shoeboxes (despite the current popularity of photographic ephemera, you can still buy vintage photos fairly reasonably, either in the flesh or on ebay.)

But while digging through musty boxes, I’ve noticed that vintage snapshots, at least the ones that survive, rarely document nature. When it does appear, nature is usually the spectacular backdrop for a group portrait, as in this delightfully whimsical photograph of the Krazy Kat in DC, circa 1925 (once again, courtesy of Shorpy):

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And sometimes nature is a trophy for long-dead sportsman (as in this snapshot from my family’s archives):

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But most poignant of all are the photos in which nature, captured accidentally, is time’s implied victim – like this family snapshot of a car weaving over the center line of a nameless West Coast highway, passing through a stand of majestic trees that are almost certainly now gone:

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Who would have thought an old-growth forest would prove as ephemeral as a new car, a family vacation or a trendy party hotspot? Perhaps this explains the relative scarcity of nature snapshots. A snapshot is urgent, meant to capture something that’s already passing, something that can’t pause to accommodate contemplation or deliberate artistry. And it’s probably always been easier for people to grasp that our lives and technologies are ephemeral, than that the nature of our childhoods might become unrecognizable.

Comments

  1. #1 Abbie
    February 28, 2008

    Fascinating post. Never thought about this.

  2. #2 Shep
    February 28, 2008

    Snapshots are small, low-resolution prints of images captured with a handheld camera. These Shorpy photos are pretty much the exact opposite: High-resolution images recorded on large-format glass negatives by big heavy view cameras mounted on tripods.

  3. #3 bioephemera
    February 28, 2008

    Actually, Shep, a wide variety of photographic techniques and levels of skill are represented on Shorpy, including Kodachromes like this treasure. Shorpy is known for its high-resolution art and news photos, but that doesn’t mean that unpredictable snapshot sensibility isn’t there!

  4. #4 ...tom...
    February 28, 2008


    It is sad that the digital revolution has effectively ‘killed’ the idea of a shoebox of snapshots.

    Perhaps only school photo and sports teams photo fundraisers still lead to time captured in a ‘hard-copy’ snapshot/photograph.

    …tom…
    .

  5. #5 anomalous4
    February 28, 2008

    Ooooooooohhhhhhhh, a treehouse for grownups. WANT!!!1!

  6. #6 turnerbroadcasting
    May 25, 2009

    I remember when I was growing up I had a banner on my wall that said.. “happiness is a stack of old comic books”

    The first thing I do when I hit my first million (that I can keep all to myself) I’m going to hire someone to scan every single thing I ever wrote, or photographed, or otherwise had on paper.

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