Recently, Vint Cerf, the vice president of Google, warned that an entire century’s worth of images and words are in danger of being lost forever. He was quoted as saying: “Piles of digitized material—from blogs, tweets, pictures, and videos, to official documents such as court rulings and emails—may be lost forever because the programs needed to view them (in the future) will become defunct. … We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them, we need to make sure that the digital objects we create today can still be rendered far into the future.”
Collectors of twentieth-century vernacular photography have been saying this for much longer than Cerf's "revelation." Collectors like Stacy Waldman, curator of the show It's a Snap, in Easthampton, Massachusetts, believes that the long overlooked and humble snapshot can provide an important connection to who we are as a people, and valuable context to the photographic field of art. Unlike the digitized world of image making we live in today, the twentieth century was rich in artifacts like the snapshot. It’s why this collecting field is so active today.
In exhibitions like Waldman's, we are witnessing a field that is driven largely by collectors. Ms. Waldman asked twenty-three of the most prominent collectors of vernacular photography in the United States to contribute images to the show. The result was an outstanding exhibition that showcased each collector’s particular focus.
In conjunction with It's a Snap!, Kristen Gresh, the Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Assistant Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, moderated a panel discussion with some of the participating collectors, including Mark Glovsky, WM Hunt, Nigel Maister, Ron Slattery, and Stacy Waldman.
To this point, it is usually collectors—not museums—who engage first with specific niches of art that fall outside of the mainstream. Vernacular photography is a perfect example. While museums have long disregarded the snapshot as an unimportant and almost trivial byproduct of camera mass consumerism, we can see by the quality of images in this exhibition that is not the case. Any art institution that considers photography a cornerstone of their collecting focus, anonymous vernacular images should be included.