Vernacular Spectacular

How Photographic Objects Have Changed Our Idea of Photography

By Daile Kaplan Back to


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.

Daguerreian Hair Bracelet, Circa 1850 Luxury goods with daguerreotype portraits were introduced in the 1840s and available until the early 1860s. This image of a child was set into a bracelet made of woven hair, a popular Victorian-era hobby.

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.

Child’s Pillow, Circa 1890 This lovely blue-toned pillow shows how cyanotype printmaking was revisited in the looser style of Kodak-era picture currency. It also demonstrates how photography was frequently employed in tandem with what is traditionally characterized as women’s work—sewing or embroidery.

More than a 150 years before the digital revolution facilitated a customization of the photographic experience, the first photographic articles were created in photographers’ studios. During the daguerreian age, Victorian-era practitioners advertised services applying images to luxury goods, quietly working with artisans to explore unprecedented ways of satisfying consumers. Daguerreotypes and ambrotypes were integrated onto a plethora of beautiful luxury goods — perfume bottles, bracelets, rings, broaches, earrings, watch fobs and fountain pens—which were seen as fashionable accessories conferring both social standing and fine taste. Queen Victoria herself, an avid photographer and cultural taste-maker, was the Royal family’s photographer. She enjoyed publicly championing the medium and was habitually depicted wearing daguerreian jewelry.

Mid-nineteenth Century upscale goods featuring formal portraits typified a moral seriousness linked to high standards of workmanship. But by the turn of the 20th Century, pictures became more familiar, viewers looked for a new dimension to the photographic experience. Specially made artifacts embraced the zeitgeist of the proto-modernist period, where imagery took on a casual appearance and objects became more spectacular and idiosyncratic. After all, the public has never tired of making pictures and wanting something more from the photograph: a desire to control not only the picture but the end-product itself.

Phone, 1975 With cellphone users increasingly reliant on mobile devices to access pictures, this scarce home phone from the 1970s demonstrates the ways in which consumers enjoyed employing customized imagery of friends and family members on mass-produced household products.

The upscale market associated with the early Victorian period was supplanted by a more democratic version, which was linked to a new generation of photographers and hobbyists who were comfortable using a camera. Homemakers who relied on the still fashionable domestic arts and were photographers themselves affixed snapshots, cyanotypes and paper prints onto commemorative objects, such as samplers, sewing kits, clothing and jewelry, enjoying their pictures anew. The aura of preciousness, status and value associated with the one-of-a-kind daguerreotype gave way to a new social reality characterized by a plethora of photographs, which underscored the medium’s populist impulse. Again, the public looked for something more from images, which were recycled onto a host of familiar objects.

Although it may seem that small-format cameras obscured the hands-on virtuosity demanded of the photo technician, true aficionados of photography never lost sight of the importance of darkroom techniques. A wonderful book with the unassuming title, Photographic Amusements, Including a Description of a Number of Novel Effects Obtainable with a Camera, which first appeared in 1896 and was in its 32nd printing in 1936, provided countless tips to the enterprising photographer. Long before critics and curators recognized the shotgun marriage between popular and high art culture, it emerges as the definitive crossover tome. A chapter devoted to “photographs on apples and eggs,” for example, evokes the deadpan tone of a 20th Century conceptual artist’s statement:

To make a photograph in green on the red skin of an apple is a wonderful but simple feat. Tie up the selected fruit on a sunny bough in a thick yellow paper bag for about three weeks before harvest time. Paste a contrasty negative to the apple with white of egg. Clear away leaves, so the sun gets clear access to the fruit, and leave it on the tree until it becomes red. If not then ripe, put it back into the opaque bag for a day or two till ready to pick. The negative may then be soaked off. Don’t use a valuable negative, but make a duplicate for this experiment.

Other chapters addressed Distorted Imagery, Collage and Composite Photographs and Photographing Snow Crystals, all of which were blueprints for modernist practice of the 1920s. Interestingly, the trajectory of photography continues to evolve in unexpected ways, insofar as such amateur experi- ments often lead to the high art practices. Think of André Kertész’s distortions of female nudes, Wilson Bentley’s capture of snowflakes, and Moholy-Nagy’s photoplastiks (montages). Part fine art form and populist phenomenon, the collective experience of living in an image-based culture continues to change our ideas of what photography is today.

Gordon Parks, Daile Kaplan, pop photographica, photo technique
Gordon Parks Pajamas, 2002 A photographer, painter, filmmaker, and artist, Parks enjoyed a multi-faceted career. His self-portrait appears on these (never worn) silk pajamas in a personal and artistic colorful montage.

By the 1930s the integration of photographs onto fine art works was an emerging practice. Julien Levy envisioned his New York gallery as a show- place where examples of both fine and applied art objects were sold. He intended to introduce a host of artifacts—wastepaper baskets, decorative screens— demonstrating this new direction and commissioned Berenice Abbott to develop the prototypes. Surrealist Man Ray was interested in dissolving the boundaries between traditional disciplines (painting, sculpture and photography) to create mixed media, hybrid forms. His original metronome entitled “Object to be Destroyed,” which created in 1923 (a facsimile was produced in multiples in 1964), features a cut-out eye affixed to the pendulum. Marcel Duchamp employed photographs in various artworks, including the Belle Haleine Eau de Voilette perfume bottle on which he appears as Rrose Sélavy. Soon after, Robert Rauschenberg embraced the vernacular, utilizing snapshots and silkscreened images from both his personal life and the mass media. His remarkable Combines from the 1950s through 1960s are free- standing sculptures featuring street and studio detritus, as well as found and family photographs. Like the anonymous makers of pop photographica, Rauschenberg recognized that his work was inspired by the narrow space between art and life.

In the last quarter of the 20th Century, visual artists further blurred the line between photography, fine art and popular culture. Cindy Sherman created a magnificent Limoges dinner service featuring herself as Madame de Pompadour. Vik Muniz produced upmarket ashtrays with his signature trompe l’oeil images and Jack Pierson, ceramic curios. Today shirts, coffee mugs, mouse pads, handbags, wallets and sportswear adorned with pictures are ubiquitous. The future of pop photographica is one in which the interdisciplinary nature of photographic expression will continue to manifest, further reducing the gap between art and life. Technology is the new motivating force in popular and mass culture and, yet again, photography has unprecedented potential to change our understanding of the world.

About the Author

Daile Kaplan
Daile Kaplan is vice president, director of photographs and auctioneer at Swann Galleries, NY and photographs specialist on PBS television’s acclaimed Antiques Roadshow. An essayist for the Smithsonian Institution’s website, Kaplan is also author of Premiere Nudes, Albert Arthur Allen (Twin Palms Publishers, 2001) and Lewis Hine in Europe, The “Lost” Photographs (Abbeville Press, 1988). She curated the exhibition “Pop Photographica, Photography’s Objects in Everyday Life, 1842-1969” for the Art Gallery of Ontario, 2002.