For the second time this year, Swann Auction Galleries is showcasing vernacular photography from a wide array of private collections, reinforcing the upward trend in popularity of this kind of collecting. Lots include nineteenth-century scientific photographs, mug shots, daguerrotypes, pop photographica, photo ID badges, even an early photo booth image of Marilyn Monroe.
With the rise of the box camera in the earlier part of the twentieth century, taking pictures became something a much wider range of people—people who were not always fully equipped with the basic underpinnings of photography—could do. Despite being easy to operate, their cameras sometimes captured sophisticated, unintentionally artful images. At other times, they became the apparatus of elaborate documentation.
Interest in vernacular photography has grown immensely in the last twenty years, and it is becoming an increasingly legitimzed art form. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam purchased—at an earlier Swann vernacular photography auction—a group of sixty-three cyanotypes documenting the construction of a bridge in France at the turn of the twentieth century. At $22,500, it was the top-selling lot.
Also sold was an extensive archive of photographs, albums, letters, and ephemera related to a nudist couple living in New Jersey. The archive contained material from the 1920s through the ’90s, and documented the couple's long-time alternative lifestyle.
Vernacular photographic material has recorded significant cultural and historical moments and speaks to many tastes—a genre at once extraordinary and ordinary.