American Snapshots 3

fat tree shadowSight, Unseen: A Collection of Colour Photographs from the US, 1940 to 1960
Because these photographs are both ‘found’ and ‘anonymous’, and furthermore because they date from a time when the ‘art’ photograph was almost invariably in black and white, it is easy for the viewer to assume a more ‘innocent’ process at work in the mind of their creator. In other words, there is an assumed unmediated naivety, parallel to that perceived by the artists of the early modern period in the work of Alfred Wallis in Cornwall, or in the ‘primitive’ simplicity of African art.
The fact that these images are colour slides has added to their uniqueness. Slides and, more especially Kodachrome slides were astonishingly advanced both in their colour saturation and longevity. Furthermore, a slide, unlike a print is more often than not the only extant copy of that image, so that while many found images are prints – the original negatives having been lost long ago, this set of slides are singular; literally and figuratively.
Additionally, slides by their nature, up until the advent of fairly recent computer technology were for the most part only seen by means of a slightly complicated system of either hand held viewer or projection.
My father had dabbled with amateur photography and as well as setting up a home darkroom in order to print black and white enlargements, he, like many other enthusiasts, also took some colour slides and invested in a projector and a screen. However, the fuss and effort involved meant that it was only rarely that we were able to view these pictures, and they remained locked away like a trove of brightly jewelled memories, inaccessible to us, unlike the prints in the family albums. One can only assume that the same was true for many other amateur photographers and their families.
The slides in this book are all from a set I came across by chance, and bought after seeing less than a half dozen images. In some ways it was an act of madness; a gamble, a self-indulgence that I could ill afford. I considered that the five or so images I had seen might be the cream of the crop and there was a a strong chance that the rest of the images would be blurred, under exposed, dull, damaged or far more recent and thus less uncommon.
The box arrived from the USA a good few weeks after I had paid for the slides (thus alleviating my final worry – that it might get lost in the post) and there was a sense of frisson and anticipation as I opened it, though I tried to temper my excitement against possible disappointment. To begin with I held each slide up to the light from the window. The first few I looked at had been loose in the box (the rest were bundled up with elastic bands) and these included the ones I had previously seen and were every bit as bright and promising as I had hoped.
I dug out my old hand held slide viewer and began to look at the rest of the images in earnest. I could not quite believe what I was seeing, as image after image seemed to burst into life before my eyes; dazzling in their colours, with reds in particular jumping forward as if the pictures were 3D. But more than that, these pictures were quirky, enigmatic and remarkable for the social and personal history they revealed.
They seemed to resonate with and refute everything I knew about photographic history; its development, the schisms of snapshot versus art photography; of black and white versus colour. Here were pictures that brought to mind a raft of images by everyone from Nan Goldin (albeit minus the sex, drugs and rock and roll) to Elliott Erwitt, by way of Martin Parr, Joel Meyerwitz, Winogrand and Friedlander, and yet most of these images pre-dated, or arguably pre-empted them. They also seemed to come before both the widespread popular use of colour stock by amateurs, and conversely, the use of colour by art and/or documentary photographers, (Eggleston and Shore both had their first ground breaking exhibitions of colour work in 1976).
The earliest of these images date from 1940 – only a small number are dated, though I concentrated my selection on those images which include clues to the period; fashion, cars and manmade items like furniture and packaging. All of the images are full frame – I have, for the most part, resisted ‘cleaning them up’ except where larger specks of dust were distracting – for example on faces.

fish flowered dress fairground ride factory flying ski florida flags

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