This post is made of excerpts from Lynn Berger‘s article “SNAPSHOTS, or: Visual Culture’s Cliché,” published in Photographies Vol. 4, No. 2, September 2011, pp.175–190. Images from unknown authors, from the MOMA online archive.
“We use the word “cliché” advisedly. As it happens, the genealogies of the cliché — an “expression or idea that has lost its originality or force through overuse” (American Heritage Dictionary)—and the snapshot go back to the same point of origin: the printing workshops of nineteenth century France. There, cliché was the name of the metal plate or mould on the printing press “from which reproductions of print or design could be made in unending quantity” (Sabin 10). Under this mechanical definition the cliché moved into the English language, where it first appeared—or so the Oxford English Dictionary informs us — in Charles Babbage’s 1832 Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. Thus intimately tied to the printed word, its use was later expanded to denote the negative in photography.6 From the start, then, the cliché was an emblem of the “age of mechanical reproduction” (Benjamin).
The cliché is a cultural product of a technological change, with middle-class connotations. The amateur snapshot is the exact same thing. Both are associated with the common man, indeed, both are commonplace. Clichés may vary slightly from one to the next (and to be sure “some variability in the standardization does not disqualify the expression as formulary so long as the expression retains its effective identity”, as Walter Ong has written: Rhetoric, Romance 288), and the same is true of snapshot photographs: “each [snapshot] captures a unique pose, even if that pose obediently repeats million other, very similar poses. They are all the same, but they are all also just slightly different from each other”, Geoffrey Batchen has observed (“Snapshots” 125).
© Unknown photographer, c.1930
Indeed, with historians like Langford and Batchen asking how to account for the repetitive form and subject of snapshot photographs, oral culture — basically, the way of the world before script — is the place of choice to look for answers.12 By linking the snapshot to the cliché, it becomes clear that repetition serves a mnemonic function with roots in a pre-modern, oral tradition, in which knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation.
As it happens, the re-evaluation of amateur snapshots that started in the 1940s and really took off in the 1960s and 1970s, relied on a similar Romantic notion of the “common man” as an “unconscious artist”.13 William Morgan of the Museum of Modern Art, defending his decision to host an exhibition of amateur photographs in 1944, wrote: “I feel that the dead walls of judgment . . . should be changed when it comes to evaluating the spontaneous free spirit which is so often expressed in the personal snapshot.” Similarly, when Aperture magazine devoted an entire issue to the snapshot in 1974, the editorial announced that the issue would examine “the vitality and ambiguity of the naïve home snapshot” (Green). In that same issue, photographer Lisette Model described herself as “a passionate lover of the snapshot, because of all photographic images it comes closest to the truth”. It appears that Nancy MarthaWest, writing, in Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, summed it up quite well: “Of all photographic genres, snapshot photography has stubbornly maintained the illusion of naiveté” (7).
The cliché is a political phenomenon. Terms like “containers for memory” and “mnemonic devices” may suggest a mere instrumentality and passivity, but clichés and snapshots in turn influence consciousness and perception as well.
For Jean Paul Sartre, clichés (or commonplaces, the term he used for “our most hackneyed thoughts, inasmuch as these thoughts have become the meeting place of the community”) were “Hell”: The commonplace belongs to everybody and it belongs to me; it is the presence of everybody in me. In its very essence it is generality: in order to appreciate it, an act is necessary, an act through which I shed my particularity in order to adhere to the general. (p. 137)
The tension between individuality and generality, between originality and conformity, is also a feature of snapshots: “most snapshots are . . . about conformity, not innovation or subversion”, Geoffrey Batchen writes, adding: As a collective activity, snapshots show the struggles of particular individuals to conform to the social expectation, and visual tropes, of their sex and class … everyone simultaneously wants to look like themselves and like everyone else — to be the same but (ever so slightly) different. (“Snapshots” 133)