Department of Co-Incidence

My friend Joan Larcom replied to a howyadoin message (which had included a pointer to Nova Scotia Faces) with this:

…The similarity I mentioned relates to your project on
Nova Scotia faces because I’ve only begun to think
about doing something similar with my family stuff.
This interest was piqued by an article in the NYT on
Dec 17th about Michael Lesy’s “Angel’s World” on
Angelo Rizzuto. Lesy is proposing “demotic”
photography or a closer look at family photos and
picture postcards. ‘UNpacking’ them sort of.

Here’s the Lesy quote:

In the past, Mr. Lesy has ruffled some academic feathers by arguing that what he calls “demotic photography,” like family snapshots or picture postcards, deserves the same level of scholarly study traditionally given only to art photography… “my whole intention is to subvert the [art photography] canon… There are possibilities that go beyond the safe definitions of what an artist is and what the camera is used for. …Academics… deal with photographs as aesthetic, intellectual constructs, or as integers in philosophical or linguistic argument. That’s not all they are. They’re slippery and deeply emotionally charged. A photograph is a thing which, to use an old scholarly word, needs to be ‘unpacked.’ There’s the manifest content, then half a dozen layered contents.”
(NYT 17 Dec 2005 sec B pg 9)

I like the flavor of “demotic”, which underscores the everyday, personal, hands-on qualities of family photographs. A Google search for “demotic photography” gets just 3 hits (“vernacular photography” nets 24,000).
One of those (besides the one pointing to the NYT Lesy quote) is a 1993 article from The Nation, which includes this provocative bit:

the Dada contribution to art was the photomontage, assemblages of photographic fragments that more or less assume an unlimited supply of images no more valuable than the paper on which they are printed, and that are readily understood by everyone, since they form the vernacular visual vocabulary of the culture.

One seeks to link to bits of story, of narrative or myth or expression. Consider the page of found images from In the Booth at squareamerica.com, each a scrap of the past, and more or less decodable, thanks to a common “vernacular visual vocabulary.” Each image serves as a momentary intersection with another person’s life-space,and the reader can gather the hologrammatic bits into the beginnings of an original narrative. Lesy’s Time Frames: the meaning of family photographs (1980) is, even 25 years later, an inspiring example of the exploration of photographs as ethnographic materials. I need to search for other books in the same vein… one such is Marianne Hirsch’s Family Frames : photography, narrative, and postmemory, but I’m sure there are others I should be thinking of.
I’ve often espoused the notion that you can start learning from anywhere/anything and construct interesting and worthwhile experiences. The starting point maps to other things and before you know it you’ve contextualized that starting point in some larger phenomenon. The challenge is to capture that process of linkage, and then to turn its telling into something distributable.

One thought on “Department of Co-Incidence

  1. Ron

    In an interesting variant of this genre, we had an exhibition here of children’s photographs taken by professional studio photographers for the parents in the early 20th century. Would seem an unlikely subject of study, but the exhibition was amazing. Incredible material.

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