The term snapshot aesthetic refers to a trend within fine art photography in the USA from around 1963. The style typically features apparently banal everyday subject matter and off-centered framing. Subject matter is often presented without apparent link from image-to-image and relying instead on juxtaposition and disjunction between individual photographs.
The snapshot tendency was promoted by John Szarkowski, who was head of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art from 1962 to 1991, and it became especially fashionable from the late 1970s until the mid-1980s. Notable practitioners include Garry Winogrand, Nan Goldin, Wolfgang Tillmans, Martin Parr, William Eggleston, and Terry Richardson. In contrast with photographers like W. Eugene Smith and Gordon Parks, these photographers aimed "not to reform life, but to know it." Frank has said "I was tired of romanticism, [ . . . ] I wanted to present what I saw, pure and simple." Szarkowski brought to prominence the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand in his influential exhibition “New Documents” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, in which he identified a new trend in photography: pictures that seemed to have a casual, snapshot-like look and had subject matter that seemed strikingly ordinary. Winogrand has said "When I'm photographing, I see life, [ . . . ] That's what I deal with. I don't have pictures in my head… I don't worry about how the picture is going to look. I let that take care of itself… It's not about making a nice picture. That anyone can do."
Later photographers such as Hiromix, Ryan McGinley, Miko Lim, and Arnis Balcus gained international recognition thanks to the snapshot aesthetic. From the early 1990s the style became the predominant mode in fashion photography, especially within youth fashion magazines such as The Face - photography from this era is often associated with the so-called 'heroin chic' look (a look often seen as having been influenced particularly by Nan Goldin).
The term arose from the fascination of artists with the 'classic' black-and-white vernacular snapshot, the characteristics of which were: 1) they were made with a hand-held camera on which the viewfinder could not easily 'see' the edges of the frame, unlike modern cheap digital cameras with electronic viewfinder, and so the subject had to be centred; and 2) they were made by ordinary people recording the ceremonies of their lives and the places that they lived and visited.
An early theorist of snapshot aesthetic was the Austrian architectural critic, Joseph August Lux, who in 1908 wrote a book called Künstlerische Kodakgeheimnisse (Artistic Secrets of the Kodak) in which he championed the use of Kodak cameras like the Brownie. Guided by a position that was influenced by the Catholic critique of modernity, he argued that the ease of use of the camera meant that people could photograph and document their surroundings and thus produce, what he hoped, was a type of stability in the ebb and flow of the modern world.
- "Snapshot aesthetic". Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
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- O'Hagan, Sean (20 July 2010). "Nan Goldin: 'I wanted to get high from a really early age'". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
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- O'Hagan, Sean (7 November 2014). "Robert Frank at 90: the photographer who revealed America won't look back". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
- O'Hagan, Sean (18 April 2010). "Why street photography is facing a moment of truth". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
- Mark Jarzombek. "Joseph August Lux: Theorizing Early Amateur Photography - in Search of a "Catholic Something"," Centropa 4/1 (January 2004), 80-87.