Vernacular photography

Geoffrey Batchen defines vernacular photography like this:

The term ‘vernacular’ literally means the ordinary and ubiquitous but it also refers to qualities specific to particular regions or cultures. Its attachment to the word ‘photography’ allows historians like myself to argue for the need to devise a way of representing photography’s history that can incorporate all its many manifestations and functions. A vernacular history of photography will have to be able to deal with the kind of hybrid objects I describe above, but also with, for example, photographies from outside Europe and the U.S. It may mean having to adopt non-traditional voices and narrative structures. It will certainly mean abandoning art history’s evaluation system (based on masterpieces and masters, originality and innovation, and so on). In short, the term ‘vernacular photography’ is intended as a provocation and a challenge.

There’s also this post on the subject from juniorbonner.

A lot of the time the term ‘vernacular photography’ also seems to be synonymous with ‘found‘ photographs – particularly old, faded, crumpled photographs found lost or abandoned in a shoebox at a garage sale – someone else’s memories, with their technical and aesthetic ‘flaws’ left bare, their subjects left unidentified, and their narratives subject to the inventions of imaginative or curious viewers.

2 thoughts to “Vernacular photography”

  1. An interesting interview; thanks for finding it.

    I have long thought that it is the “ordinary” image that deserves most of the credit for elevating photography to its status as our primary visual reference. At the time of its invention, photography was simply “yet another” 19th C. technological advance. Yet, photography had a singularly different advantage over other technologies like the steamship, the railway and Singer’s sewing machine (to name a few near-concurrent technologies). That advantage was that it was able to do something for the individual in a specific way. Especially with regard to portraiture, It could relate something *particular* about that person, his environment, his values and his interests. In this way, it was “better” than the steamship, in that the relationship between the viewer and the photograph was more intimate than the relationship between the passenger and the ship.

    As amateurism rose in photography (through better, cheaper, easier-to-use materials) this intimacy increased, as the images could be more specifically about what someone *cared* about.

    The “masterpieces” of photography are simply the tip of an enormously large iceberg, the base of which is the billions of photographs made by anonymous practitioners of the medium.


  2. Thanks for your observations Jeff – I like the idea of photography being about intimacy; like the steamship, it was/is also about (virtual) travel though, yes (eg prior to its stabilisation as a medium for documenting the domestic, the heavy promotion of photography as a tourist activity in the early part of the 20th century)? I wonder if the history of photography looks different from around the *bottom* of the iceberg, too…

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