Lisa Robinson's weekly History of Photography Column
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History of Photography: The Snapshot

The introduction of the Kodak camera and it’s ensuing popularity started an entirely new school of thought in photography; the snapshot. Previously, “snapshot” was used by hunters as a term that meant to shoot instinctively without taking aim. Soon the term became quite appropriate for photography as well. The increasing ease (technically and financially) of taking a photograph led to more and more people shooting spontaneously and indiscriminately. People were free to take a multitude of photos of their everyday lives–from the places they visited to the people they saw. If a photo didn’t “turn out” there were others on the roll to work with. No big deal.

The snapshot’s popularity meant many people did not immediately see the need for a professional photographer. Snapshots made professional photographers find ways to offer different, more enticing work and products than what consumers could mae with Kodak offerings.

Kodak’s negatives were originally small and circular but were soon changed to rectangles to conform to a more painterly aesthetic/aspect ratio. Also, because the negatives were so small, it encouraged the growth of the practice of enlarging photos, which lead to the standard practice cropping photos during printing. This fed the snapshot attitude even more because now you really didn’t have to think about that distracting element in the side of the frame, or the person that walked into the frame right when you clicked the shutter. Just crop it out in post!

Snapshots did contribute positively to the growth of professional photography in that it encouraged professional photography to stylistically become more loose. The spontaneity of snapshots with their candid subjects, unorthodox cropping, skewed horizons, motion blur, varying lighting conditions, etc. became a part of our visual cultural language. There was an obvious demand for less formal and less contrived images. Professionals now had fuel for finding a way to bring these elements into their work and do it better than the average hobbyist who had little to no technical skill or artistic talent could.

Snapshots also brought up unprecedented legal issues of rights to privacy. With the prolific amount of people taking random pictures in all kinds of public places, anyone walking down the street, sitting in a park, or having a meal at a restaurant were subjected to having their image imprinted on this random person’s film.

(Editor’s note: The link to the article from the New York Times is available free for Times digital subscribers.) The New York Times even ran an article on Wednesday, August 20, 1884 calling it “The Camera Epidemic” and equated the “national scourge” of these photographers to cholera. That photographers had contracted “Camera Lamina sicca” and were “camera lunatics” harassing healthy people. While the article was satirical, it drew responses that showed an increasingly resentful public. Soon people were calling for laws against photography in public places. One proposed law was that any camera operator who were to “attack” a large assemblage of persons with a wide angle lens in broad day light shall be liable to three years imprisonment in a dark room. Quite extreme, and luckily for us, none of these suggestions were ever passed and as photographers we have quite a few laws protecting our right to photograph in public places.

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