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Curious Frame - Issue #36 - Vernacular Photography

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #36 - Vernacular Photography
By Leanne Staples • Issue #36 • View online
Whether it’s merely in digital format or printed, a photograph is always a document of sorts. It represents a time and place and it is always history. It is always past tense.
Documents are typically used as a form of proof. A passport photo is a form of legal proof. We rely on photography to provide a degree of truth even though we are fully aware of the fact that a photo can be manipulated.
In social media we see so many photos of exotic vacations, designer apparel and haute cuisine. People flaunt their social worth for all to see. Everybody wants to be in the in crowd. To blend in.
There are so many photos out there that have no depth. They are superficial. They are meant to impress us and to trick us into the trap of seeing is believing. 
Everyone wants to achieve their 15 seconds of fame in the virtual world. There’s this crazy idea that we can become rich and famous by sharing images of our life that imitates others who have made it big.
But Curious Frame digs deeper into the world of images. I thank you for accompanying me on this journey to discover what’s below the surface.

Curious Questions:
In the previous issue I requested as a method of trying out something different that you provide a response to the question below.
I received 4 responses so far and they are all very different from each other. I will be using them in upcoming issues of the newsletter and I’m hoping that more people will respond.
It’s fun and easy and there are no right or wrong answers and there’s only one question:
What are 3 words, possibly adjectives, that you would use to describe photography. What you think of it, what you like about it, whatever. Three words!
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Reader's Comments:
Don’t keep those thoughts to yourself. Curious Frame is about dialogue and I’d love to hear your comments or even questions or inspirations. And it’s easy. Just hit reply in your email.
Your opinions are valued. No advanced degrees or education required.
One reader wrote:
Hi Leanne, thanks for your thoughtful newsletter and your commitment to sharing your enthusiasm and insights into street photography. Always a provocative read. 
Another reader wrote:
Very inspiring!
Thank you for subscribing to and reading Curious Frame. It is my pleasure to hear from you and I’m very happy that my enthusiasm is infectious and that I am able to be an inspiration!
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Vernacular Photography
Dave's Luncheonette, New York City, circa 1980. I don't recall when I first heard of street photography, but it was at least a few decades after I took this photo and around the time of the invention of digital cameras. I was interested in buildings and signs and not people. Perhaps this could be called vernacular photography well after-the-fact.
Dave's Luncheonette, New York City, circa 1980. I don't recall when I first heard of street photography, but it was at least a few decades after I took this photo and around the time of the invention of digital cameras. I was interested in buildings and signs and not people. Perhaps this could be called vernacular photography well after-the-fact.
I wrote about documentary photography Issue 12 and how I think that many photos that are tagged street photography are really documentary.
I also wrote about what is street photography in Issue 27. But it should be known that Curious Frame is often more about questions than answers.
Perhaps the idea of genres is becoming outdated or they have become fluid as so much has become in this post-binary world that we are living in.
Walker Evans, Subway Portrait, 1938–41 © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Walker Evans, Subway Portrait, 1938–41 © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Walker Evans is well-known as a documentary photographer. The above photo could even be considered a street photo now. What is perhaps less well known is that Evans went out of his way to not look like an art photographer.
Documentary, vernacular and street photography overlap. They are not neat categories. It’s a good thing that within the different genres there is breathing room and space for different styles.
If we all took the same photos and followed specific rules, photography would become redundant. There would be no reason to shoot.
Photography is a method of communication and at it’s best it reveals the world through the eyes of the photographer while leaving enough space for the viewer to fill in their own story.
Martin Parr – Great Britain. England. New Brighton. From The Last Resort, 1983-85
Martin Parr – Great Britain. England. New Brighton. From The Last Resort, 1983-85
All types of photography are important. For me, vernacular photography is essential as it provides a record of a moment, of important events in peoples’ lives, whereas many documentary or artistic photos are produced for a specific purpose. There is an urgency in vernacular photography that you don’t necessarily feel in professional photography. Martin Parr
Martin Parr is perhaps a master of vernacular photography. He somehow manages to capture photos that provide a view in which we are voyeurs secretly being witness to the ironies of humanity.
Parr came under a fair amount of criticism for the series The Last Resort as many thought that he was judging the people that he photographed. I find the series more thought provoking than judgmental.
It is of course, always interesting to hear what a well established photographer has to say. To be certain, Parr has had a very successful professional career as a photographer.
Some descriptions of vernacular photography place it in opposition to art photography. But many photos that are considered vernacular are also considered to be art. So maybe we shouldn’t go overboard in defining it.
Robert Frank. Unfortunately, I was not able to find information about the date and place this photo was taken.
Robert Frank. Unfortunately, I was not able to find information about the date and place this photo was taken.
The edges of the picture were seldom neat. Parts of figures or buildings or features of landscape were truncated, leaving a shape not belonging to the subject, but (if the picture was a good one) to the balance, the propriety, of the image. John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye.
John Szarkowski was a very influential person in the world of photography and in establishing it as an art. He was a Director in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art for three decades (1962-1991.)
The world of photography owes much to Szarkowski, though by the time of his retirement a new breed of photographers surfaced with new methods and criteria. The idea of vernacular photography was popularized by him.
Yes, Robert Frank was another photographer who utilized vernacular techniques and style. What is the most important part of a photo shifts from total control over composition to photos with more unexpected framing.
John F Williams The Rocks, Sydney, Australia, 1973 gelatin silver photograph, 22.6x34.1cm. Purchased 1989 © John F Williams
John F Williams The Rocks, Sydney, Australia, 1973 gelatin silver photograph, 22.6x34.1cm. Purchased 1989 © John F Williams
Vernacular is one of those intimidating words we do not dare use without quotes. It always seems too broad for what it describes … or not precise enough. Its meaning seems to vary depending on who is using it. The Art of the Oxymoron: The Vernacular Style of Walker Evans by Clément Chéroux, November 2017, SF MoMA.
Vernacular photography like vernacular culture is informal, without pretensions. It is local and it’s often about the spirit of place and regional styles.
Vernacular is needed now more than ever in the world of globalization when everything looks the same. While we all share some things in common, we also have those experiences and things in our lives that differentiate us both in regional and personal ways.
Vivian Maier, September 29, 1959. New York, NY
Vivian Maier, September 29, 1959. New York, NY
Assigning a genre or a category to a photo or to anything else in life, is not something to take lightly. I can tell you that I am a woman. But what does that say to you?
We can attach many nouns and adjectives in an attempt to define someone or something, to create a mental image. But what results is more likely to be stereotyping that coming to any better understanding.
Yes, Vivian Maier, that mysterious photog who wandered the streets taking photos that she never really intended to become public, was a vernacular photographer.
Joel Sternfeld, New York City, (#1), 1976
Joel Sternfeld, New York City, (#1), 1976
Okay, so I guess you’re asking about now why I’m writing about vernacular photography. People are often intimidated by the term street photography as if your photos have to look like a particular photographer.
I find that in general, people who do workshops with me are worried about a million different aspects of the photos they take. They are often things that you shouldn’t worry about.
Also, people often think that either you are an artist or you make a living as a photographer. As if there’s no middle ground. If nothing else, vernacular photography opens things up a bit. It provides more freedom.
William Eggleston, Memphis, 1965, from the series Los Alamos, 1965-1974, ©Eggleston Artistic Trust, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York London. Eggleston will be the topic of an upcoming issue.
William Eggleston, Memphis, 1965, from the series Los Alamos, 1965-1974, ©Eggleston Artistic Trust, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York London. Eggleston will be the topic of an upcoming issue.
Nevertheless, street photography is many things and at the same time it is often used as a method of fitting in. In case you haven’t noticed, street photography is cool.
So maybe even calling it street photography is a problem. That is especially so as the majority of photographers that are placed in the street photography category never even called it that. 
The genre itself has been assigned after-the-fact. Hindsight might come up with a better name for the style of photography that we think of as street photography. Maybe in 25 years we’ll have a new name.
On 34th Street, Hell's Kitchen, January 2019.
On 34th Street, Hell's Kitchen, January 2019.
If you do an internet search for vernacular photography, you’re more likely to find old found photos that people are trying to sell for more than they’re worth.
I’m not certain why the term has so little mention even though a number of famous photographers and museum curators write about it. What’s more important is that you are able to create photos that reflect you and your life experience.
Don’t be intimidated by the work of the famous photographers. And by all means, include the spirit of place in your work. Vernacular photography should feel liberating to make. I hope that I am able to encourage and inspire you to go out and shoot, safely.
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Sharing is Cool! If you’ve been forwarded this email or are reading online, consider joining the dialogue by subscribing. If you are looking for past issues you can find them all in the archive at the link below.
BTW you can give this newsletter a thumbs up or down at the end and you can also share it on social media to Twitter or Facebook.
Curious Frame | Revue
Further Reading:
  • Edwards, Steve. Photography: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2006.
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Further Viewing:
Photographers in Focus: Martin Parr
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You can also find me at:
Artist, Photographer & Writer - Leanne Staples
Walking Photo Tours & Street Photography Workshops in New York City
Did you enjoy this issue?
Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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