I’m pretty sure you know a snapshot when you see one, almost everyone does, except for those few oblivious people who can’t seem to recognize them in their own photo albums. I have a friend who has an entire scrapbook full of out of focus, low resolution snapshots and he doesn’t even seem to care or even notice. If we all considered every snapshot we took to be a work of art, that would also make for a rather sad collection of a lifetime of images.
I became deeply interested in photography in the late 1980s. I have always been a struggling actor and writer, so collecting important photographs was always been out of my range. Yet, I have an impressive collection of informal snapshots, mostly with a LGBTQ interest, from the 20th century, found at thrift shops and yard sales.
The snapshot is a photograph that is “shot” spontaneously and quickly, mostly without artistic or journalistic intent. Snapshots are usually technically imperfect, amateurish, out of focus or poorly framed or composed. The subjects are everyday life: parties and celebrations, sunsets, kids, group photos, boyfriends and girlfriends, pets, tourist attractions, and celebrity sightings.
The snapshot idea was introduced to the public by Eastman Kodak, which introduced the Brownie box camera in 1900. Kodak encouraged Americans to use the Brownie to capture moments in time and to shoot photos without being concerned with producing perfect images. Kodak advertising urged consumers:
Celebrate the moments of your life and find a Kodak moment.
The snapshot camera continues in our own era with inexpensive point-and-shoot digital cameras and a camera on our phones with fully automate flash, ISO, focus, shutter speed, and other functions, making the shooting of a quality photo simple. After a lifetime of trying, I was finally able to take a good picture with the purchase of my first iPhone in 2011.
It’s easy to tell the difference between a snapshot and a photograph, but it’s not always so easy to pinpoint what qualities make a photo one or the other. Really, though, the difference boils down to a single word: Carelessness. Snapshots are just that: Shots you snap. When you take a snapshot, you don’t give any thought to what you are doing. You pick up your camera or phone, you point it at something, and you snap the photo. What you get in return is a document that tells you what happened the moment you clicked that button. It’s history frozen.