January 09, 2008

We’re continually struggling against the tide of New Yorkers here at West, never quite reaching that magic place where we’re ready for the newest issue when it comes, so it took until this week to make it to the December 24 & 31, 2007, issue. The Books article, titled “Visual Trophies,” by John Updike, focuses on the history of snapshots in America, which he describes through a review of the book The Art of the American Snapshot 1888–1978, the catalog for an exhibition of the same name at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.


It’s an interesting piece, and the exhibition and catalog sound intriguing for anyone with an interest in the history of photography as told through amateur, vernacular, anonymous photos. Somewhat strangely, though wonderfully, the article is illustrated with a half-page photo of a beautiful old photobooth, photographed by Harvey Stein, with a woman’s bare legs visible where the curtain should be. Below the large photo are five smaller portraits: four photobooth photos and one photo which might typically be called a snapshot. While we were excited to see photobooths so prominently featured, the article has precious little to do with photobooths at all, and we were left wanting a little more. 

Updike follows the history of the snapshot as it is laid out in the book, and when dealing with writer Sarah Kennel’s section on 1920–1939 (titled “Quick, Casual, Modern”), he describes the way the easy-to-use cameras that were becoming commonplace at this time made all sorts of photos possible:

A number of somewhat racy exposures hint at the camera’s significant role as a de-inhibitor, an enabler of what Kennel calls “home-grown pornography.” Nudes in provocative poses were among the earliest fruits of big-box, slow-tech photography in the mid-nineteenth century; something about the camera’s impassive appropriation of whatever is set before it invites, like a psychoanalyst’s silence, self-exposure.

He then quotes from Nakki Goranin’s upcoming book American Photobooth, in which she describes the way photobooth users were “stripping off their clothes for the private photobooth camera.” This is, obviously, an important observation and an interesting indicator of the power of the photobooth and the sense of privacy it gave to those who used it, but by bringing up this passage as evidence of the way the simple new cameras liberated amateur photographers, Updike glosses over the fundamental differences between a photobooth and a camera used by a typical consumer at the time. A photobooth creates no negatives, and those women taking off their clothes and couples getting adventuresome in the booth were safe so long as the curtain stayed closed. Once their photos came out of the booth, they had all of the evidence, but for amateur shutterbugs who wanted to get a little racy, there was still the shame of sending the photos away to be processed by Kodak or dealing with the knowing glances of a drugstore photo counter employee. For an entire article about amateur photography, it seems odd to base a point around the way photobooth photography works, as well as to illustrate the piece with photobooth photos. Photobooth photography sits somewhere between amateur photography, studio photography, and automation, and it seems that the distinction between snapshots and photobooth photos still needs to be made a little more clearly. 

Photos: Top © Harvey Stein. Bottom 1, 4, and 5: Nakki Goranin; 2 J.F.K. Library; 3 Collection of Robert E. Jackson.


  1. 1
    nakki goranin 

    Brian, though it’s not mentioned in the article, all the photos (except one) are taken from my book, “American Photobooth”. Technically, photobooth images do not fall into the category

    of snapshots. Also, it should be noted, that the majority of people in the world do not realize that the chemistry involved in producing an image does not require a film negative.

  2. Yeah, the Updike article bothered me. He writes like a dream, but Updike is not a photo historian and I don’t understand why The New Yorker chose him to write the article.

    I’d like to remind readers that Nakki Goranin will be having an exhibit of American Photobooth in Burlington VT at Pine Street Art Works. The show will be up for February and March. The artist’s reception will be on February 9th, that’s a Saturday, from 2 to 5. For more information you can go to the gallery website