During the past 30 years photography’s status has been dramatically altered. Once a marginal area of aesthetic endeavor that was seen as a mechanical art form ridiculed by the academy and public alike, today it occupies center stage. Contemporary artists’ uses of digital photographic imagery have been foregrounded in the media and at auction, which have also heightened awareness of works by analogue practitioners. As the field has continued to develop, museum curators and private collectors have revisited vernacular photography in all its guises—snapshots, family photo albums, commercial pictures, as well as applications of photographs onto three-dimensional decorative and functional photo objects. Such photo novelties were once consigned to the margins of fine art discourse, occasionally dusted off as Folk or Outsider Art, but ultimately dismissed as kitsch. The rich visual language and photographic references of photographic objects, as well as how they reflect a convergence between art and daily life, were overlooked. With renewed interest in vernacular photography, there have been a host of sumptuously illustrated books and fine art museum exhibitions.
As a photography specialist at a New York auction house, I have come to characterize collecting as an occupational hazard. Since the 1990s I have been collecting examples of one-of-kind items—jewelry, clothing, furniture, mementos and souvenirs—high- lighted with photographs. Perhaps my background as a curator made it inevitable that the myriad ways in which images have been assimilated into both the private and public spheres would become more and more fascinating to me. Most of photography’s creative objects challenge traditional notions of artistic display insofar as they were literally “off the wall,” that is, freestanding, unique and handmade items embedded with revered images of family members. They were specially produced for the home environment or meant to be stylish accessories. The application of pictures onto items, which dates back to the emergence of daguerreotypy, may be seen in 3D works by photographers and fine artists, jewelry-makers and craftsmen, homemakers and hobbyists. This colorful convergence of photography and popular culture is one I’ve termed “pop photographica.”
Photography has always been directly linked to technical developments in the public’s imagination. Think of the introduction of the remarkable verisimilitude of daguerreotypes to the “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest” Kodaks, to the widespread use of point-and-shoot cameras and the proliferation of cellphone cameras. The medium has also lent itself to a variety of substrates—copper, iron, as well as paper, glass, aluminum, leather, cotton, silk, wood, china and ceramic—which has resulted in reliable forms of pictorial representation that were ideally suited for material consumer goods. Each advance has not only made image making more accessible but, more importantly, influenced our understanding of the extraordinary range of photographic expression.