Melissa Catanese, Dive Dark Dream Slow, The Ice Plant, 2012
 
 

Before beginning to question and analyze Melissa Catanese’s work Dive Dark Dream Slow, I feel it’s necessary to introduce a few points about so-called “vernacular photography.” When I write “so-called vernacular photography” I intend to provoke some reflection about precisely what this kind of photography might be, and about the difference between vernacular and snapshot photography, if there is any.

The word “vernacular” appeared for the first time in English language around 1600. It comes from the Latin word vernaculus, and actually means “native to a country; domestic, native,” and is often used in reference to language. Looking at the Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary, the word vernacular stands for “the language of ordinary speech rather than formal writing.” Vernacular is also used in architecture to define a specific architectural style that tries to respect historical and environmental context of specific buildings.

The use of the same term in photography reveals different aspects of these meanings, which have previously been invested the term’s use in reference to both language and architecture. When a specific language is addressed as vernacular, we imply that this language is slang or a colloquial dialect, not a codified and official language (although some sort of cultural codification obviously exists). Vernacular architecture is codified and designed (here we can question whether or not it is genuinely vernacular), by being adapted to a certain kind of territory using materials found on the spot. The question then becomes: what does vernacular photography share in common with those other forms?

 
 
Melissa Catanese, Dive Dark Dream Slow, The Ice Plant, 2012
 
 

Defining vernacular photography is highly problematic. In vernacular photography we observe photographs made by amateur photographers rather than professionals, and we take for granted that their intent was not the realisation of a perfect picture for client or exhibition. At the same time, it is not possible to say that this kind of photography is not codified, not structured, not influenced by cultural and social influences. Sometimes these photographs don’t even appear amateurish. We identify vernacular photography merely as old photographs made by people other than professionals photographers, but the issue is clearly more complex than that.

The Oxford Companion to the Photograph describes vernacular photography as: “Aesthetically unpretentious, generally functional images made by amateur snapshooters or grass-roots professionals (e.g. itinerant tintypists, photowallahs, or jobbing local portraitists) for everyday purposes such as creating keepsakes or recording mundane.” I totally disagree with the idea that vernacular photography is aesthetically unpretentious, because I’m convinced that even amateur photographers shoot their images trying to achieve a certain effect and aesthetic, no matter how consciously they do it. One of the central questions about photography is and has been: how consciously can we photograph?

 
 

Melissa Catanese, Dive Dark Dream Slow, The Ice Plant, 2012
 
 

The amateur photographer decides, as does the professional, the subject and the frame of his photograph, and the resulting image is influenced by the culture and social norms of its period. To say that vernacular photography is aesthetically unpretentious is incorrect, because photography is automatically aesthetic. There is nothing natural or innate about photographs or photography, even in a domestic setting.

At times we freely pass vernacular photography off as snapshot photography. Kodak’s famous slogan “you press the button, we do the rest” is a clear statement about the advent of photography as a tool for the masses, and not solely the professionals. The technique has become easy and accessible, but can photography be liberated from any kind of aesthetic? Do snapshot/vernacular/domestic photography possess their own intrinsic aesthetics, or are they the result of our cultural and social moment, imposed by and inseparable from the mechanism, the technique, the idea that we already have images? We interacted with images long before the advent of photography, but for the first time with photography we were allowed to use an easy tool in order to create our own (or we were persuaded to think so).

When we decide to photograph a certain subject we have to face numerous complications. To name a few: the choice and selection of the subject, the setting, the frame, the photographic mechanism (time and exposure). These complications make no exception for amateur photographers.

 
 
Melissa Catanese, Dive Dark Dream Slow, The Ice Plant, 2012
 
 

I’ve recently and inadvertently discovered how much the critique of snapshot photography has changed in the last forty years. The perception of images, and the role of photography as a “democratic” tool have shifted radically, and photography’s democractic nature has been called into question. I’ve discovered two very different books about snapshot photography written in the 1970s. They have very opposite approaches. The first one, called The Snap-shot, was published by Aperture in 1974, edited and introduced by Jonathan Green. The book is a collection of short texts from various professional photographers, among the others Tod Papageorge, Paul Strand, Emmet Gowin, Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand. This book tries to show two different aspects of that “so-called” snapshot photography: the domestic ritual of photographing everyday events, using the familiar environment as a rich ground on which to construct photographic projects (Emmet Gowin, Wendy Snyder Macneil); and the quick and natural reaction to our surroundings, a part of which has been frequently defined as street photography (Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Joel Meyerowitz).

It is correct to say that the term snapshot is in general “uneasy, equivocal, enigmatic”. The first short text in this book is written by Lisette Model. This text is one of the reasons why I would urge caution exploring these books from the Seventies, and their ideas of snapshot photography. Lisette Model wrote: “I am a passionate lover of the snapshot, because of all photographic images it comes closest to truth.” Even if the idea of truthfulness has always been associated with photography, today we are pretty convinced that both professional and amateur images are the result of aspirations, dreams, and natural or induced needs. This means that snapshot photography reveals something about the society of a specific period of time, but at the same time the same image is also a construction of that society, and not a true and absolutely reliable document.

This book by Aperture, is certainly open to this discussion. I would like to assume that Jonathan Green chose to talk about snapshot photography through the voices of professional photographers to question the real meaning of the term. Paul Strand, in fact, wrote: “I have always taken the position that the word snapshot doesn’t really mean anything. To talk about it you almost have to begin by asking: When is a snapshot not a snapshot? When is a photograph not a snapshot?” The book reveals that snapshot photography is here intended more as a technique than as an amateurish practice. The development of photographic cameras made photography accessible to numerous non-professionals, and the result was the production of all kind of images. It is, in the end, an untenable idea that snapshot photography is produced only by accidental, natural and casual attempts made by non-experts and unpretentious photographers.

 
 
Melissa Catanese, Dive Dark Dream Slow, The Ice Plant, 2012
 
 

Another book, published for the first time in 1977, is even more unsophisticated about the role of snapshot photography. The book is called The snapshot photograph - The rise of popular photography 1888-1939, by Brian Coe and Paul Gates, published by Ash & Grant Ltd. It proposes a brief history of snapshot photographic tools, especially a series of early Kodak cameras. The selection of “so-called” snapshot images here is just an accumulation of historical clichés, and idealized images of a specific time (probably emerging from newspapers and magazines). The term snapshot is here once again distorted and unclear. Taking up an opposing view, I think that the essay “Now is Then: The Thrill and the Fate of Snapshots” by Marvin Heiferman in Now is Then - Snapshots from The Maresca Collection, published in 2008 by The Princeton Architectural Press in collaboration with The Newark Museum, explains perfectly the difference between the naive idea of photography as a democratic medium, and our concrete and present perception of vernacular and snapshot photography. The essay, which I highly recommend, begins: “Snapshots are complex and willful little pictures. It is only because they are so small and so frequently and easily made that we think of them as innocent. […] Snapshots may appear to be naive, but they are seldom innocent. Amateur photographer do not take pictures like professionals, but the pictures they produce are often no less dense and multifaceted. Snapshots reflects the needs and desires of all who make and appear in them, as well as the social, commercial, and visual words in which they are produced.”

This essay is one of the three essays and one interview collected in Now is Then. The first intent of the book is to show a selection of photographs donated to The Newark Museum from Frank Maresca’s collection. Another aim that this book is able to achieve is to stimulate our curiosity and interest in those collected and found photographs, not only provoking mere sympathy for them, but activating our thoughts about the photographic medium and its power. With these photographs we have to face our past directly, while acknowledging that the photographic image also has the power to perfectly mask the past, and to lie to us.

 
 
Melissa Catanese, Dive Dark Dream Slow, The Ice Plant, 2012
 
 

The fascination with found photographs has recently engaged many collectors, curators and photographers. One of the reasons for this intense fascination might be the almost total disappearance of snapshot photography in our everyday life as an event. We are overwhelmed by images and photographs, thanks to our more than accessible digital tools and networks to make those images public. However, at the same time we are particularly unaware of our emotional attachment to personal photographs.

By definition digital tools are ephemeral. Therefore we cannot presently know if our digital images will survive as those found photographs have already done. “Every photograph that captures a moment in time simultaneously documents its passing” says Heiferman’s essay at a certain point, but our time is passing so quickly, and it is so filled with uncertainty, that most of the huge amount of photographs that we are making for personal reasons in the present will simply vanish in the near future, due to the advance of technology.

 
 
Melissa Catanese, Dive Dark Dream Slow, The Ice Plant, 2012
 
 

Looking at vernacular/snapshot/domestic/found (here the list of terms is constantly expanding) photography, we fantasize about the narrative gap that those images produce. Nancy Martha West, in another essay from Now is Then, directs her attention to the role of found photographs and to our desire to “write a ‘discovery narrative’ for snapshots.” One of the questions that she proposes, one of the most important for our discussion, is “So why is it that we are not content to let found photographs remain silent” if they are, as Weston Naef stated, pure visual and liberated from textuality? Our need to fictionalize the world is unavoidable. The process of fictionalizing never ends; in a permanent movement, it takes power from the search for representation produced by the natural process of imagination, and it manifests itself in all our codified languages, whether verbal or visual.

 
 
Melissa Catanese, Dive Dark Dream Slow, The Ice Plant, 2012
 
 

Melissa Catanese’s selected photographs for her book Dive Dark Dream Slow were obtained via her access to the massive collection of found photographs gathered by the collector Peter J. Cohen. Her book is the result of multiple selective methods: the selection of the subject and frame, determined by the photographer; the passion of the collector and his acute eye in finding the right pieces for his “art” collection; the ability of the photographer to write a ‘discovery narrative’ for these found photographs. I would place an emphasis on write because what struck me about Catanese’s book is exactly her force in creating a narrative, and at times abstract feeling. The title, Dive Dark Dream Slow, is a poetic and lyrical introduction that describes what we are going to see inside the book: a dance of bodies and dream-like apparitions.

 
 
Melissa Catanese, Dive Dark Dream Slow, The Ice Plant, 2012
 
 

Melissa Catanese, with her assemblage, creates a leap into our subconscious and touches us profoundly. The images selected generate an initial path for our thoughts, but they leave enough space also for our imagination. We are forced (like in the well done literary compositions) to fill the gap between the disclosed and the unrevealed. We want to fill up the empty spaces between the concrete and knowable (the images of men and women that we recognize as actual men and women of a specific period of time) and the infinite unknowable (the power of a past that we don’t know and the quality of photographs as something that is intrinsically absent and irremediably intangible).

 

www.mcatanese.com

www.theiceplant.cc

 

Text by Anya Jasbar
Edited by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa