Because the serious amateur made a point of not compromising his images with the mundane, he is seldom of use to social historians. For documentary and aesthetic purposes, one turns instead to photographers who had no idea what they were doing—who "had the advantage of having nothing to unlearn," as the curator and photographer John Szarkowski once put it.
These photographers made mistakes. One scholar of the snapshot has catalogued the classic ones, including a tilted horizon, unconventional cropping, eccentric framing, a distant subject, blur, double exposure, light leaks, a finger over the lens, banality, and the photographer's shadow. Nearly all these features appear in the snapshots at the National Gallery of Art and in the exhibition's catalog. In a snapshot taken around 1930, for example, a photographer appears to have tried to reproduce a Victorian-era portrait by photographing it being held by a pair of hands against an automobile door. He seems to have misjudged the framing, however, and the tiny portrait at the center of the photograph—a couple in formal dress, separated by a garden gate—appears as a mere detail, no more prominent than the large hands holding it in place. By accident, the polish of the car reflects the photographer, hunched over his device, as well as a tall, skeletal structure behind him, which might be either an electrical tower or a windmill. It fails as a reproduction, but suggests an allegory of the past's diminished place in the present —not as reflective of us as of the glossy new surfaces of the modern world.
Caleb's grandfather dances with a skeleton