If you ask someone to define “snapshot,” they typically squirm and say something like, “You know, a picture, I mean not an art photo, just a picture.” They might add that it is not in focus, that it is of a family, that it was made with a cheap camera, that it was made with a handheld camera and so on. While all these may be the truth, none of them hold true as the sine qua non of the snapshot. Each criterion singly and all collectively can apply to what are regarded as fine art photographs just as readily as to snapshots. The term snapshot was originally a hunting term. The earliest recorded use of the term was in the diary of an Englishman named Hawker. He wrote that in hunting almost every bird he got was by snapshot, meaning that he did not take careful aim. Later this term was applied to photography when exposure times got fast enough so that “photographs could be taken, as it were, by snapshot.”
Perhaps it was the hand-held camera that provided the way. The Leica was developed in 1927, made to shoot stills of movie sets, hence the unusual rectangular 1.5 x 1 format. It freed photographers considerably. They were less noticeable, could go places where large cameras and tripods could not, were quiet, and easy to carry. Henri Cartier-Bresson was the master of this camera. It allowed him the freedom to move about in the world, almost lurking while waiting for some act that was worth photographing. He gave us the term “the decisive moment.” While most decisive moments must be taken as “snapshots,” not all snapshots record decisive moments. Garry Winogrand roamed the world outside taking pictures. He loved the act of photographing. His most famous quote (and he is very quotable) is “I photograph to see how things look photographed.” The large number of unprinted negatives and rolls of undeveloped film that he left upon his death document his penchant for taking photographs and not for photographs themselves.
In an essay on the aerial photography of William Garnett written by Peter Plagens in Aperture, 1983, making photographs is equated to moving through the world shoplifting images. This may be the main difference between painting and photography, in photography the images are there, they just need to be seen. One of the most appealing things about snapshots and one of the more important things to learn from them is how much the act of photographing something changes it. Snapshots give us this honesty that everyone is searching for as some sort of grail. They are very critical and often show us the plain unvarnished truth about ourselves.
One of the fertile areas for snap shooters is the genre of “street photography”. Again Garry Winogrand was a master at this. Photographers who make what appear to be snapshots include William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, William Klein, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander among many others. More careful perusal of their photographs reveals amazing attention to detail, careful composition, and an understanding of photography that is instinctive. Sometimes this subconscious understanding is considered to be technical skill, but it is much more than that. It is photographic vision. This is something born of both technical skill, a love of photography, and inherent talent. I am not sure if it can be learned, I do think it can be practiced upon and improved, but the foundation of this vision probably needs to be in place at the get-go. Using a telephoto or long lens is not a part of the tradition of great street photography. William Klein uses a 28 mm lens on his Leica; Robert Frank also used a wide angled type of lens. This required getting up close to the subject, one of the goals of the street photographer.
Some have suggested that the “street” is a metaphor for “life.” The subjects are then photographed in their lives, coping with, enjoying, detesting, or whatever, but all having some interaction with their life when photographed. To do good street photography is not to just go out and shoot. One has to obey the dictum of Charlie Morrell: ”Many look, few see.”