Essayist Richard Rodriguez discusses taking pictures.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: All of us have taken snapshots like these of the family dog, of grandpa, or the new baby in bed, or the newlyweds. Alternately, all of us have stood in front of the camera, waiting impatiently as kids, waiting for the camera to click before running away. Such an odd, such a lovely notion for a show here at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, a show that examines snapshots, photography of everyday life.
It was a Rochester, New York bank clerk, George Eastman, who sold America on the idea of taking snapshots. Eastman's genius, like Henry Ford's, was democratic and thoroughly American. The Kodak camera-introduced in 1888-made a new technology inexpensive and made it attractive to the common man, or, more assuredly, the Kodak woman-at the beach-dancing-eating ice cream. Because of George Eastman, Americans began taking pictures of each other and of nearly everything in sight: snakes, houses, sky. It is winter in some of these snapshots.
More often, one feels summer, the best season for snapshots, when the days are long and the nights late, and the cat gets herself caught out on a limb. Etymologically snapshots is a hunting term referring to a rapid round of gunfire. Click, click, click. Randomness is crucial to the snapshot. There is little art here. Life caught without design. And who fondly remembers a photographer-the person who urged these children to say "cheese?" Our interest in looking at snapshots is with the people in front of the camera, not in the person shooting the picture. Before Cartier Bresone, or Ansell Adams, there were these photographs of people, these pictures of nature. Art photography-the sort of photographs that usually hang in museums-was a notion developed in reaction to snapshots.
Alfred Stieglitz, for example, deplored the little effort and little self-knowledge required by snapshots. He wanted a middle way between the stiff formalism of 19th century studio photography and random snapshots. And in the same way that a folk song touches something in us that is deeply human more easily than a complex aria, snapshots touch us precisely because of their artlessness. To see these lives caught for an instance is to realize how sudden and how random, how unadorned are the moments of our lives.
Looking at these snapshots I keep thinking of the last act of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." Emily from the grave is watching her mother make breakfast. It is a terrible scene. Emily weeps at the magnificent details of a life that as a girl she could not fully absorb: newly-washed linen, her mother's sunflowers, hot baths. Life moves too fast. The snapshot catches the face in the passing train or the horse in mid air, but, of course, the snapshot doesn't capture the second at all. It only reminds us of how quickly the moment passes. To look at old snapshots-one's own or another's-is to feel finally the weight of time. Was that really me? How young Mama seemed, though I had no idea at the time.
The odd thing about posing for snapshots is that we do not fully appreciate how someday we will look at this moment and wonder. We hear the camera click. The snapshot preserves the moment forever. Only dimly do we realize how we will stare at ourselves looking back from the future. Finally, snapshots amuse the young and console the old.
To study a snapshot, to see a moment in any life, the stillness of a lake in summer held forever, is to see the world as Thornton Wilder's stage manager tells Emily, As only saints and poets see the world, aware of the wonder, the mystery, this ordinary moment.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.