Vernacular Photography

Hello and Happy 2022! Hope you had a pleasant holiday season and were able to enjoy it with family and friends, despite our ongoing Covid challenges. As mentioned previously, I spent the holidays working at a camera store and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But now it’s back to my photography. I’m dedicating myself to it this year, and hope to show much more new work shortly, so stay tuned.

But learning continues to be a focus as well. I thought I had heard of almost everything to do with photography – yes, there might be some obscure piece of equipment I had never heard of, but in terms of genres, I thought I knew it all. Not so. Listened to a great podcast driving to work about a totally new (to me) genre called “vernacular photography”. What is it? Read on.

It seems that all of the photographs from all the kitchen cupboards, old dressers, scrapbooks, family albums, attic chests and garages are now part of a new trend. Doesn’t matter how bad the photograph is in terms of composition, how faded the print, how curled the edges, there are groups of people that specifically seek these out and assemble them into collections on display at some of the great galleries of the world.

It’s called “vernacular photography”. What exactly is it? It seems that it relates to snapshots in time that show some small slice of an era, in its most basic way. All of us have old family photographs, often in shoe boxes that have no labels, no dates, no idea of who or what is depicted in them. Those interested in this genre will retrieve them from individuals, flee markets, fairs, even other collectors, and research them as best they can first, then assemble them into interesting collections.

There could be collections of doors, collections of old pipes, collections of signs saying Coca Cola, or even collections where the photographer collected pictures of himself in a crowd (obviously taken by other photographers) and wrote on them to point out which one in the crowd was him – the word “me” is prominently featured in ink across the face of the photographs in this collection.

I was also completely surprised while at work at the camera store as a lot of photos that would fall into this category were printed or copied on our self-serve kiosks. Prior to taking the job, I had no idea just how many of these are produced around the holiday season. Old albums tucked away or old canisters of film found by accident in drawers prompt the same compulsion to create printed copies to share. In addition to the collections hidden away in shoeboxes, people now have thousands and thousands of images on their cellphones. Many span decades. They exist nowhere else until the holidays prompt the desire to print some.

Or the owner may have just inherited a collection, like the young lady who came in and explained that her grandfather had just passed away and left her a collection. In it, she found many images of her mother as a child that she had no idea even existed. She alone spent 3 hours making scanned copies of them to share with family and friends.

And I must admit that as I helped some customers navigate the kiosk, I wondered why they were printing the photographs they chose because, from a photographic perspective, they were pretty bad. I remember one in particular. An older couple standing in a sunlit afternoon backyard, with a child’s swingset and wading pool in the background. Grandparents likely. But the sun was low in the sky in front of them, and the shadow of the house covered the lower half of their bodies, making it seem like they were floating in space, with only half their bodies really visible. The upper half was sunlit, but the sun was so bright that they were squinting horribly and were both covered from top of head to waist in the orange glow of a setting sun. One of the ugliest pictures I had ever seen. But meaningful to the maker, and a story of the times. And I have to admit that in my own collection, I have one quite similar – of my parents.

Collectors of these photographs collect them for all sorts of reasons – common elements, common colours, common messages. One collection consists of photographs where the feet of the subjects are cut off. Another where the sign of a neighbourhood grocery is the constant theme. Another where a particular model car is featured. Another with a particular shade of red. There is always something that links each collection together.

It seems these collections are as sought after as the sports trading cards of my youth, with collectors forming clubs to hit all the neighbourhood flee markets on a regular basis. They call each other up to describe their latest finds and to get help interpreting what might be an obscure reference on a particular image. And they buy and sell their collections, just as we would the china, chystal or figurines popular in my parents’ time.

The last time I visited our city’s main art gallery – the Art Gallery of Ontario – I toured their photography collection and was surprised to find hundreds of these snapshots of time, right alongside the artistic captures that I identify as real photography. At the time, I wondered why they were there but did find myself stopping to examine a few – just for the quaint depiction of something historic, not because I enjoyed them as art.

Completely fascinating, but frankly I have no interest in the hobby of vernacular photography myself. I do find that I am more inclined to investigate my family history lately, but do not find meaning in investigating anyone else’s. And I certainly don’t want to gather and store anyone else’s history, even if it does reveal something interesting about the time. Most importantly though, I don’t see these collections as art, despite the growing movement to find all things vintage to now be chic and trendy.

That said, I suspect I will now look at my own shoebox collection differently. I’ve even added to it over this latest set of holidays. Maybe you did too. Instead of using my photographer’s eye and deleting the photographs that under other circumstances are not “keepers”, I’ll look for insights into my personal space, my personal connections or the times I live in. Who knows – one of my vernacular images may one day be on display in the Manhattan Museum of Modern Art.

6 thoughts on “Vernacular Photography

  1. Well, so nice to hear there is a name for photos I’ve been snapping for so many decades! I keep what others don’t give a 2nd look to, and love the foibles that capture an authentic moment in time. Besides, sometimes a dangling hand has a good story….


  2. Great article Nina. And like Donna we have several archive boxes of old photos the we too have to sort through. Will be interesting to view them from this perspective. Thanks for letting us know about your blog.


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