The Art of the Snapshot

Dave Kennard at

Language is constantly changing but the pace of change through the medium of technology is now faster than ever. The internet has transformed the way people communicate with each other, and the use of audio and visual messaging has become more commonplace with the soaring popularity of social media and instant messaging apps, such as Instagram, Vine and Snapchat. In fact, we’re moving to a more pictographic form of communication which harks back to the way cavemen communicated, with a single picture conveying a full range of messages and emotions.

A snapshot is a photo that was taken quickly, with little regard to the composition, framing, and camera settings — a photo that was taken without much thought. However, when a photo is described as a snapshot, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad photo. There have been — and still are — many popular and award-winning photographers who make use of the snapshot style. In this piece we’ll look at the snapshot in more detail, covering a brief history, and exploring how technical imperfections can add to rather than detract from the photograph’s aesthetic value.

History of the Snapshot

In the early days of photography, taking a photo was quite a complicated affair. Cameras were big and heavy, you required technical knowledge to correctly operate the camera, and you would need a darkroom to create actual prints of the images to see them. This changed with the introduction of the Kodak Camera in 1888 — a simple, uncomplicated box camera that came pre-loaded with film for 100 photos. When you used up the film, you sent the camera back to Kodak to have the film developed. But the real revolution in bringing photography to the masses was the Kodak Brownie camera, introduced in 1900. This camera allowed reusable film, but most importantly it was available for a low cost ($1) that made it accessible to most families.


Kodak Brownie 2 Box camera by Håkan Svensson on Wikipedia (licensed CC-BY)


The Brownie was marketed as being so easy to use that even a child could use it. It had a simple fixed focus lens, a single shutter speed, and used narrow apertures to create a deep depth of field that put most of the frame in focus. Later models did add viewfinders, but these were very small and not particularly accurate, nothing like the through-the-lens viewfinders or screens we use today.




While the access to a cheap camera meant that people could better record special events in their lives, one of the main differences the Brownie brought with it was the photography of everyday life. Prior to the Brownie a person was unlikely to have a camera, and extremely unlikely to employ a photographer just to photograph the banalities of life. But with a cheap camera and film this became more common.


Tea with friends, and one must wear one’s finest hat! by James Morley on Flickr (licensed public domain)

Within a couple of years of the Brownie’s release, the Pictorialist movement started to gain greater strength. While not explicitly aimed against snapshots, the Pictorialists aimed to put the emphasis in photography on artistic expression rather than simply just photographing a scene or subject as it appears to the eye. Through their efforts, the Pictorialists managed to have photography recognized as art — the equal of painting and sculpture. Snapshots, of course, typically lacked any purposeful artistic expression. While you could find galleries exhibiting photographs, it was very unlikely any of those photographs would have been snapshots.




Charles Burroughs and Floyd Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama, by Walker Evans (licensed public domain)






In the 1930s a small backlash started against this way of thinking. Walker Evans is often thought of as being the father of documentary photography. He photographed scenes and people in the rural south of the US, capturing them in a documentary style, rather than as an artistic interpretation. While Evans’ work and the documentary style of photography may not be quite the same thing as what most think of as snapshot photography, the main thought behind both is the same.The goal of the snapshot is to record a moment in time — the aesthetics of the photo are secondary. While the goal of the art photographer is an aesthetically pleasing photograph — the subject is secondary.

It was John Szarkowski, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who really brought snapshots into the realm of art. In his 1966 exhibition and book The Photographer’s Eye, Szarkowski included photographs by well-known photographers and studio portraits, alongside newspaper images and snapshots. He argued that the art of photography was to reveal that which already exists —The Thing Itself.

In the 1960s, street photography started to become more popular, Garry Winogrand’s photos of everyday life in New York particularly standing out. These photos captured life as it happened, photos that were sometimes tilted, taken quickly, effectively snapshots.
More recently we have a massive increase in snapshot photography thanks to the built-in camera in every smartphone. Just as the Kodak Brownie revolutionized photography in the early 20th century, so the phone camera has revolutionized photography in the early 21st century. People are again motivated to take snapshots of everyday life. Like the Brownie there is often little control over the resulting images and, for most people, no control over the image is what is wanted.

Snapshot Art Form

Non-snapshot photography is based around the careful formation of an image. Choosing the focal length, framing, composition, depth of field, and shutter speed to create a picture that shows what you want to highlight about a subject, while eliminating or at least reducing what you don’t want to show. Photos are often planned and some can take a lot of work to bring about. Non-snapshot photography is often based around capturing the less ordinary, such as beautiful landscapes and beautiful people.


That’s why I’m easy… Easy like a Saturday afternoon. by Jen Knoedl on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Snapshot photography is the opposite. Subjects are the mundane and every day, or the sides of life people would rather ignore than have shown to them. There is no direction of the scene or the subject; it is a spontaneous capture. The images often eschew the ‘rules’ of photography. Often the subject will be centered. All of the image, including extraneous elements will be in sharp focus and there can be items in the frame the photographer did not intend to include in the photo. The photo may be badly processed or damaged if taken on film, or could have been enhanced in a certain way if digital.The goal of snapshot photography, from the point of view of the photographer at least, is to show life as it really is, rather than a ‘constructed’ representation. Of course, there is still manipulation here — the photographer still chooses where to point the camera and at what point to press the shutter. But artistic intention is not the driver behind the photo, just the goal to record what was seen.

A difficult question arises when we try to define what makes a snapshot photo into art. When taking a photo ourselves, we understand the context behind that image. But if it is the combined lack of artistic intent and lack of context that transform a photo from snapshot into art, then how can we determine if our own snapshots are art? I would say this is partially possible, but it does depend on the subject. Taking street photography as a good example, you can take a photo of someone or some scene you find interesting. While you do have some context to the photo, all that context will be that you saw the person. You don’t know them, you don’t know where they’re from, or where they were going. All you know is you saw them and took a photo. This provides a good lack of context for judging the aesthetics of the image on its own merit.


Man Walking in the Snow by Dirk Förster on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

One reason why a snapshot style of photography may be chosen is because it seems more raw, more real. In the 1990s the snapshot style was very popular for fashion photography – models were used and directed by the photographer with a certain artistic intention behind the images. We’re seeing a similar thing at some stock photo libraries now. They say that clients want more photos of real people doing real things, rather than obviously staged ‘stock’ photos. They want stock photos that don’t look like stock photos and where before they had strict criteria for submissions in terms of image quality, they are now clamoring for shots taken with phones.

In conclusion, I’m not saying that you should completely forget all the guidelines and technical details of photography and start blindly taking photos of anything that interests you in full auto mode. But rather, we shouldn’t dismiss snapshots as merely the work of uninformed amateurs. It is precisely because they are the work — or at least appear to be the work — of uninformed amateurs that allows some snapshots to take on a new context and be considered as art. After all, pictures are a language unto themselves.

Edited and adapted by Claudia Giat

© Dave Kennard, 2018. All rights reserved.                                                                               Reprinted and adapted with the kind permission of the author.

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