Text by Manuela Lintl
A camera for still photos – just like a video camera – now belongs to the normal inventory of a modern household. We seem to have a compelling need to capture ourselves in pictures and also to hang on to important, unusual or simply pleasant moments in our lives. Thus, we can understand private photography as a constant attempt to command places, people and the past itself, and in the process, we also adorn reality, presenting it in its idealized manifestation. That is why we search for a particularly expressive, interesting or agreeable image before we click the shutter. We pose our subjects, eliciting phony expressions (the obligatory, cheesy smile) or select supposedly optimal lighting situations (without glare or cross-lighting). All these acrobatics have been necessary since photos captured fleeting moments for posterity. Only since the advent of the digital age have we been able to easily improve upon these captured images after they are taken. This brings up the question of the possible future of amateur analogue photography, a question which we will return to here later.
The link between photography and memory is a core aspect of amateur photography. Susan Sontag pointedly summarizes this in her book, On Photography: “Photography is an elegiac art… All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” In the very act of laying hold to a single moment and freezing it, photography witnesses the remorseless flow of time. In Paolo Biancis essay, “The Aesthetics of Photography,” on the other hand, the author differentiates six types of photographic images according to the various forms of perception by photographers and in photos. Among these is the “photography of remembering.” Bianchi explains: “In the hands of today’s masses it [photography] becomes a mirror of its own reality. And a possibility, to independently capture and form its own world in pictures.”
Susanne Wehr has confronted anonymous amateur photography for quite some time. This pursuit led to the creation of the Internet site ” volks-bild.” On this site, she presents the findings of her research and catalogued collections of images from the vast inventory of anonymous private photos that she has unearthed. One of the more telling products of this effort is the catagorization system she has developed. Here the artist offers clues to the recurring themes and motifs which quite obviously transcend national boundaries, socio-economic background, age and gender of the photographers and their subjects.
It is fascinating to observe that these categories overlap to a great extent with the genre distinctions employed in art studies and more specifically research into painting and photography. Susanne Wehr recognizes six major categories with diverse variations on a theme. Take, for example, the category “people,” which is sub-divided into central figures, torsos, seated figures, portraits, groups, etc. Additional main categories include: “transportation, equipment and machines,” “cityscapes,” “landscapes,” “tableaus” and, of course: “miscellany.” Except for the last item, these are the categories already used with the rise of the middle class in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to dissect painting and visual arts.
One explanation for the overlap in the concerns of photographic art and amateur photography may have to do with the origins of the medium. In her Stylistic History of Photography in Germany 1839-1900 (Stilgeschichte der Fotografie in Deutschland 1839-1900), Ursula Peters writes that at the beginning of the age of photography, the potential of the medium itself was less of a concern. Rather, photography was employed as a means of supporting already existing forms of artistic expression, especially painting. Therefore, as photography was originally seen as the successor of painting, the newer medium simply assumed the familiar categories and genres of the old. Three main categories of photography resulted: portraiture, landscapes, and scenic or eventful episodes.
It was not until the Victorian Age that photography started to exhibit some semblance of artistic independence. A brochure published by Ernest Reulbach in 1865 clearly documents this development. The author describes how “photography in and of itself represents a blossoming of scientific progress which, in the hands of an artist, becomes its own means of artistic expression … Imagination and a sense of beautiful proportion is no less available to the photographer than to the painter.”
These genres, categories of pictures, have remained with us virtually unchanged in amateur photography since the nineteenth century, regardless of the complex, experimental and enormously diverse developments that have occurred in the field of photographic art. This may explain why amateur photography often seems a bit old hat but also familiar, reassuring. We perceive a glance at a field of memory whose shared quality, dynamic and ephemeral nature all transmit an elusive, inexpressible sign of the times.”
The digital age presents challenges for the survival of photo archiving since digitally stored images are only intangibly available. These images can no longer literally fall into the hands of artists like Susanne Wehr. Susanne Wehr already appreciates the value of individual histories such as those presented in private photography. In this regard, with her collection in “volks-bild” the artist makes an important contribution to the aesthetics of photography.