Snapshots, an Everyday Critique

Snapshots, an Everyday Critique. 2007.

Every family has them, stacks of albums stuffed full of snapshots. First black and white photographs then more latterly colour, held in with corner stickers or by crackling yellow cellophane. We accept these images as visual histories and consign them to the category of memory be those memories real, imagined or supposed. We consider them to be everyday family documents. Yet examining these everyday images, viewing the subject in it’s chosen landscape and pose, you could easily make the mistake that the whole of human existence is spent on a beach, blowing out candles or riding on a fairground carousel, in fancy dress.

The records we make are records of leisure time and leisure activities, holidays, birthdays and other celebrations. Clearly not everyday activities, but rather as Lefebvre asserts, activities that critique the everyday:
“be he and author or not, the man of our times carries out in his own way, spontaneously, the critique of his everyday life. And this critique of the everyday plays an integral part in the everyday; it is achieved in leisure activities” [1]

Lefebvre goes on to discuss how the relationship between the everyday and leisure is dialectical, united yet contradictory. That the everyday cannot be separated from it’s own critique through leisure. He also places this into an historical context, as previously the critique of the everyday was a subject reserved for the educated and excluded the manual workers. Lefebvre says that this time of critique must be explicit, that it must manifest as a clear break from the everyday, that there is little sense of leisure in gardening or DIY. He states that the ambiguous forms of leisure that look like work or seem to require an obligatory exchange are inadequate. Thus rejected are such past-times as reading or viewing art (and we certainly rarely document these activities through photography). Thus I would like to propose that the typical figurative snapshot could be viewed as a document of everyday critique. Susan Sontag asserts, “Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.”[2] Perhaps this is key, we cannot step out of the everyday entirely, that is the dialectical nature of work and leisure, but by documenting the leisure time it can give the appearance of participation and thus the appearance of a break, a separation from work.
Sontag states that photographs “help people to take possession of a space in which they are insecure”[3] so to indexically record the ruptures that leisure creates in every day life is not only to reinforce the idea of separation, but to also help the subjects come to terms with that rupture. Leisure time critiques the everyday, but we negotiate this critique and understand it through the snapshot. It could be said that photographing these unusual events, normalises them and allows for them to be catalogued, functioning similarly to the banal documents of Mass Observation, which Ben Highmore describes as “At one and the same time mundane and poetic”. [4] Mass Observation, an organisation founded in 1937 with the aim of studying and recording the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain, employed 500 volunteer observers to maintain diaries and facilitate questionnaires. They also anonymously documented people's overheard conversation and observed behaviour. This observation took place on the street, in the workplace and at various public events, a kind of anthropology of the near. A strange transformation takes place, the banality of the everyday becomes a moment of strange poetic beauty via it’s textual recording. Snapshots work almost oppositionally, taking the unusual moments of our existence and through the medium of the lens transforming them into everyday objects, which seldom hold the interest of those that have no vested interest. The camera is a democratising tool, by recording and representing an event it can begin to negate the event and certainly manages to sanitise it, creating a safe distance between the event and the viewer. An example of an event that requires sanitising or polite mediating would be the funfair or carnival. Described by Lefebvre thus:

The Funfair: a people’s event whose survival and indeed industrialization have occasioned much astonishment. The noise and the deafening music supply the required break. He we enter a humble, restless, microcosm, extraordinary and vulgar. And apparently cheap. Only things which might remind us of work are excluded from this microcosm. In it we find knowledge (the aquarium, anatomical displays, eroticism (naked dancers), travel, wonders, departures, sort, etc.[5]

Interestingly Michel Foucault refers also to the fairground: “These marvellous empty sites on the outskirts of cities that teem once or twice a year with stands, displays, heteroclite objects, wrestlers, snake women, fortune-tellers and so forth.”[6] Foucault refers to the fairground as a temporal heterotopia. For him a heterotopia reaches its full function or capacity “when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time” [7] This idea of a break or gap is an echo of Lefebvre’s thoughts, Foucault even suggests the idea of the break only appearing to be separate, but actually being dialectically related to it’s proposed other.
But among all these sites, I am interested in certain ones that have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralise or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror or reflect. These spaces as it were, which are linked with all the others which however contradict with all the other sites [are of two main types].[8]

So it seems that the funfair is a theoretically valuable and it is certainly a site that falls under the category of must-document experience and thus features in our family albums. Carnival workers of the sort described by Foucault, also feature in the photographic work of artist Diane Arbus.
Her work of 1970 “Albino sword swallower at a carnival” is a fairly typical example of her images, black and white, not overtly showy or overly-lit and the pose assumed is, as usual for Arbus, the familiar attitude of the vernacular photograph:

A strange woman (with her incredibly white hair) performs a bizarre act for what is presumed to be a single spectator, a mechanical spectator. This is a private performance; it doesn’t take place in its deigned spot, the carnival stage, but instead behind a tent, in secret. The sword-swallowing woman is well dressed, but not in particurlarly theatrical garb, this is her everyday. Yet as a document it speaks of the opposite, it is here at the carnival, the temporal heterotopia, where the everyday is critiqued, where the rupture happens. This is not the everyday of the viewer, nor, we assume that of the photographer. This is the strange. Still, the action of photographing this event has democratised it, the event may have seemed unusual, but now it is no longer an event, but merely a trace of an event. An ordinary object has been fashioned from the medium of the extraordinary.
In medicine, Heterotopia is a term used to describe the displacement of an organ or tissue from its normal place within the body. Foucault’s various examples of heterotopias (museums, libraries, prisons, cemeteries, ships, cinemas, care homes etc) could be described as sites where normal human behaviours and responses are displaced. Lefebvre’s sites of everyday critique through leisure could be described similarly, but perhaps as sites where normal human behaviour (work behaviour) is not displaced, but rather replaced (by leisure behaviour). Of course, despite the similarities, we do not choose to document heterotopias in the way that we document leisure time, nonetheless a parallel between the two concepts emerges, this notion of a break or rupture with the everyday, as illustrated by “Albino sword swallower at a carnival”.
The strategy of normalising the strange, of making the unfamiliar familiar is one that Arbus repeats in many other photographs such as “A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY” (1970). In it, a young man towers over an older couple, barely able to stand due to the confines of the suburban sitting room in which they are pictured. His enormous size is emphasised by the woman’s upward gaze. This strangeness is not only tempered by the assorted lamps, sofas and curtains of suburbia, but also by the title Arbus has assigned to the image; the giant is at home with his parents. Through Arbus’ documentation this mysterious tableau becomes normalised. Almost just another family snapshot.

Of course, Arbus’ images are not really snapshots, but widely published and exhibited art pieces. Like all images their function changes depending on where they are shown and how they are curated. Yet there is some evidence to suggest that Diane Arbus would have liked for her photographs to be more akin to snapshots than glossy magazine or art images. Indeed a book has been published with the intent of recasting her work as if a family album[9] and indeed, many of her titles refer to filial relationships or place her subjects “at home”. Certainly, even some of Arbus’ wilder images can find spiritual and aesthetic twins within the volumes and volumes of family albums and images spanning five generations that I personally inherited:

I find the critique of the everyday inherent throughout these albums. Here are the documents of the unusual, framed in the action and the language of the common and these critiques through breaks, through leisure are joyous moments, so long may we continue to document ruptures, select moments from the everyday and makethe unfamiliar familiar. For it is in the unheroic, the trivial and the unnoticed that magic and mystery continue to dwell, here with the giant houseplants.

[1]Lefebvre, H. (1991) Critique of Everyday Life London; New York, Verso. P29.

[2] Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography [Harmondsworth], Penguin. P10.

[3] Ibid P9.

[4] Highmore, B. (2001) Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: an Introduction London, Routledge. P75.

[5]Lefebvre, H. (1991) Critique of Everyday Life London; New York, Verso. P41.

[6] Foucault, M (1967) published in Mirzoeff, N. (2002) The Visual Culture Reader London; New York, Routledge. P234.

[7] Ibid P234.

[8] Ibid P231.

[9] Lee, A. (2003) Diane Arbus: Family Albums New Haven, CT, Yale University Press.

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