The novelist Eudora Welty once wrote that a good snapshot keeps a moment from running away.
With the advent of smartphone cameras and social media, people are capturing more moments than ever before in the history of photography, yet the vast majority of these images are made, stored, and shared digitally—but never printed. A photograph as a tangible object has become a thing of the past, a charming remnant of a time when taking a photograph was a rarified event, rather than an everyday, every hour, or every minute experience.
A new exhibition at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College offers a glimpse into how the medium used to function in the lives of amateur photographers. Other People’s Pictures: Snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Gift will be on view July 14-September 17, 2017. The exhibition and all associated events are free and open to the public.
Comprised of 200 small black-and-white photographs mostly of American women from the early and mid-twentieth century, the photos in this exhibition were selected from a gift of more than 500 donated by Peter J. Cohen in 2015.
Cohen, a tireless and enthusiastic collector, has amassed more approximately 50,000 amateur photographs culled from antique shops, flea markets, private dealers, and online sources. Thanks to his inclination to both collect and donate them to museums, these photographs have been rescued from neglect and possible oblivion.
"The snapshot, which became possible after the invention of the Kodak camera in 1888, is a instant in time,” says Cohen. “Out of context one doesn't know what happened before or after that moment. The speculation of events is part of the magic and mystery of viewing ‘other people's pictures.’"
These objects, often called vernacular photographs, are not taken as works of art or official records of events made for mass consumption, yet they reflect the texture of modern life by capturing moments in the lives of ordinary people.
“Gathered in this exhibition, they are seen in a new context and imbued with fresh meaning,” says Mary-Kay Lombino, the Emily Hargroves Fisher '57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator and Assistant Director for Strategic Planning at the Art Center. “Separated from their individual origin stories, they become cultural artifacts, blank slates for narrative rewrites, ripe for reinterpretation.”
Included in the exhibition is a range of images depicting traditional roles such as women with children, in couples, or in domestic scenes, as well as women dressed for work, leisure, or in the fashion of the times. In addition we see women revealing a rebellious independence, breaking with propriety, seducing the viewer, flaunting their sexuality, and dressing as men. An underlying theme that emerges from this collection of pictures is the power of the pose and the desire to shape one’s identity for the camera.
“This exhibition offers an opportunity to view the pictures from the vantage point of the twenty-first century in a time when women’s rights and the social mores that determine their behavior are being questioned, debated, and even protested in the political arena,” Lombino explains.
This will be the first large exhibition funded by the Hoene Hoy Photography Endowment Fund. “Other People’s Pictures is a two-way mirror, reflecting those who posed for them long ago and those who chose and respond to them today. This is a uniquely participatory exhibition,” says Anne Hoene Hoy ’63.
In addition to a focus on women in America, individual images were chosen for their idiosyncratic, adventurous, and sometimes humorous spirit. The images in the exhibition are universally familiar: the idea of perfection and the impossibility to achieve it lingers in the poses, outfits, and faces of the women depicted.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue featuring short fictional narratives on individual photography by Vassar students and professors as well as artists. Writers include Ann Daly, Leigh Williams, Mark Dion, Amitava Kumar, Judith Linn, Marco Breuer, Eirik Johnson, Katherine Newbegin, Jerry L. Thompson, Oliver Wasow, Caleb Stein, and several others.
“These snapshots are full of mistakes and mishaps, near perfect compositions and awkward expressions, and collectively they attest to the tremendous impact that photography has had on the ways in which women see themselves,” Lombino says. “The women that stare back at us from the small frame of each picture project self-possession and allure that is at once timeless and fleeting, forthright and vulnerable.”
Support for Other People’s Pictures is provided by the Evelyn Metzger Exhibition Fund and the Hoene Hoy Photography Endowment Fund.
Gallery Talk: The Collector’s Perspective: Gallery Talk with Peter J. Cohen
Wednesday, July 19, 12:00pm
Curator’s Gallery Talk: Recurring Themes
Thursday, August 3, 5:00pm
Walk-through of the exhibition with Art Center curator Mary-Kay Lombino.
Gallery Talk: An Artist’s Perspective with Oliver Wasow
Thursday, August 31, 5:00pm
Exhibition Closing Lecture: Joel Smith, How Snapshots Matter
Thursday, September 7, 5:30pm
Taylor Hall, room 102
Smith is the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at The Morgan Library & Museum. A reception will follow in the Art Center Atrium at 6:30pm.
About the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building's primary donor, opened in 1993. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the Art Center feature approximately 350 works from Vassar's extensive collections. The Art Center's collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 20,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares. Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college's inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American 20th-century painters.
Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free and all galleries are wheelchair accessible. The Art Center is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, 10:00am–5:00pm; Thursday, 10:00am–9:00pm; and Sunday, 1:00–5:00pm. Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and the Vanderbilt mansion. For additional information, the public may call (845) 437-5632 or visit fllac.vassar.edu.
Vassar College strives to make its events, performances, and facilities accessible to all. Individuals with disabilities requiring special accommodations must contact the Office of Campus Activities at least 48 hours in advance of an event, Mondays-Fridays, at (845) 437-5370. Without sufficient notice, appropriate space/and or assistance may not be available. For detailed information about accessibility to specific campus facilities, search for “campus accessibility information” on the Vassar homepage (http://www.vassar.edu).
Directions to the Vassar campus, located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie, NY, are available at www.vassar.edu/directions.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.