Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Fake Vernacular Photography

I think I am thoroughly on the record as approving of "vernacular photography", of the snapshot. What it lacks in technical merit it makes up for with the power and mystery of reality. When I find a crumpled snapshot on the ground, it connects me to a life, a series of lives, about which I usually know almost nothing. This genuine connection, this mystery, is precisely from whence these things gain their power, and it is considerable.

At the moment I am reading Colberg's book on Photobooks, about which more in a little while (I'm not finished with it yet) and I have become infuriated by a some of his examples.

He uses several of these things which are obviously meant as explorations of some personal problem (either the artist's or someone else's) through "the language of vernacular photography" which means "willfully ugly fake snapshots".

So, yes, indeed. We have a book made up of staged, fake, vernacular photographs, exploring, no wait, surely interrogating, the fascinating world of "how my mom's schizophrenia impacted my youth" or something.

We are looking at gutless, powerless, photos, willfully ugly, talking about a subject that almost nobody gives a shit about. Look, I get it, your family life was tough (although, to be honest, if you're willing to fake the snapshot aesthetic, I cannot ignore the possibility that you're faking your problems as well). And if you forced me to listen to your story, I would cluck my tongue sympathetically.

But it's a big world, everyone's got problems, and at the end of the day I don't give a shit about you or your problems. I don't know you, we have no connection (beyond that you're trying to sell me a book), and there are many many people I do care about to expend my caring on.

Amusingly, Colberg starts out by explaining that the market for photobooks is tiny, and consists mainly of aficionados who read photographs in specific ways. Of course it's tiny. Frankly, it's a miracle that you can sell 400 copies of a book of shitty fake snapshots that clumsily tells a possibly fake story about some personal problem, Who the hell wants a thing like that?

The game here, obviously, is to try to hijack the power of the vernacular photograph, but it fails, completely, for the reasons above. As soon as the staging becomes clear the enterprise collapses completely. Well, except for the 400 wankers who plug their ears and sing loudly, because they Want To Believe.

Now, Art qua Art is not well served by populism in particular, but this kind of explicit anti-populism, this explicit effort to make awful things that nobody on earth could possibly like, also does not serve well. Perhaps some sort of middle road, you know? And while you're at it, throw in some more universal themes. Blah Blah Blah My Problems was a thing in literature for 15 minutes a decade ago, and a) it's mostly over and b) it doesn't translate very well anyways.

All that said, Colberg's book looks at this moment (about half way through it) like a maddeningly irritating book that you really ought to own if you're interested in photo books of any sort (even photo books that might appeal to a real person).

Gimme a couple more days, I should have something coherent to say about it.


  1. You clucked your tongue?!!
    Always a pleasure to read someone with a command of the language.

  2. That was a compliment by the way.