One of the most interesting and accessible portals to collecting art is Vernacular Photography. All it takes is an eye for well-composed images, a bit of luck, and a willingness to preserve quality work through purchase and care. Curators, critics and art historians generally talk about Art Photography as an expressive medium practiced and advanced by artists who, through training or self-teaching, see themselves as artists. They define Vernacular Photography as, basically, everything else; the sheer bulk of which is aesthetically uninteresting and pedestrian.
However, within this uncountable photographic record of humanity exists photographs of incredible insight, stellar composition, and, when practiced by an untrained individual with a passion for the camera, a body of work worth cataloging. Though any monkey with a camera will achieve at least one stellar example in a thousand shots, we are not really hunting for the photographic equivalent of Koko’s paintings here, though accidental images can also be of interest. Rather, the key is to find work, either singly or as a body, validating the untrained artist’s ability to provide a window into their world, while maintaining all the passion and care the subject deserves. Vernacular Photography celebrates an everyday communication of the people, places, things, and times these individuals value and, as such, is embraced as Outsider Art.
We all take pictures, and, most likely, we all know someone who carries their camera everywhere. With 10,000 American Baby Boomers retiring each day, downsizing has become the word de jure with thousands of photographs discarded in slide carousels, folders and photo albums. A good number, however, find their way to flea markets, thrift stores and second-hand shops, meaning there may be no better or cheaper market for entry level collecting than Vernacular Photography. Again, all this demands is an eye for composition, a willingness to explore, and a desire to preserve. It also helps to have a willingness to view multiple examples by one person, as the best of these photographers deepen their relationship with the camera over time, continuing to surprise and reward the astute viewer.
Most being anonymous, occasionally, as in the case of Vivian Myers, whose work first appeared at an unclaimed storage auction, personal narrative will deepen the understanding and appreciation of the work. Myers’ inquisitive eye, intuitive compositional structures and quiet dedication to the artform are worth repeated viewing. Even if she were anonymous, the work would hold up, and this is the point: somewhere within the human genome exists this nascent love of beauty. We all can develop a recognition and appreciation of this, but those who find need to access it for creative purpose are a gift to humanity, as they lift us all in spirit and in hope.
Three early images – created in the first 60 years of the medium, roughly 1839-1899 – easily excite Vernacular Photographic interest. Both the subject and the photographer are unknown. Placed together in one sleeve in an antique shop display, it was simple luck to find them. Each image has evidence of being corner mounted and, therefore, once placed in an album. Removing them from the album is an unfortunate occurrence, as it robs individual images of any context. Fortunately, someone saw these as a set, thereby preserving a thread of connection between them. The images have the honey-brown color of old albumin, most likely printed from a glass contact negative sometime between 1875 and 1900.
Shot in open-air environments, the same individual appears in each photograph, a man about 50 years old in various modes of dress. Two of the images show this person alone. The third includes a second individual, bent over, sleeves rolled, shovel in hand, as if digging. It is here the image begins to reveal itself. They stand within a grove of trees, as the man with the shovel turns to look toward his companion who is dressed in medieval attire. This man holds a skull in his left hand as he gestures with his right. We recognize this immediately. It is Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”
With this information, the next two images take on added readability, particularly in reference to the person dressed as an elderly woman sitting in a rocking chair. It moves from an assumed early depiction of cross-dressing to character acting. These images, taken as a trio, become an actor’s promotional playbook, revealing his chameleon-like ability to take on any role. There is a sense of compositional naïveté in the mixing of stage performance with actual environments that anticipates motion pictures depicting classical repertoires beyond the confines of stage scenery. The old woman and the longhaired preacher could be any number of characters in 19th century melodramas. The scene from Hamlet says “serious theater.” As three related Vernacular images, they inform, entertain and cause the viewer to pause.
Single photographs possessing these same qualities can be enigmatic, leaving questions only additional photographs or contextual information can answer. When these are present, the photograph opens up in a way that invites repeated viewing. This happened for me at a regional flea market when I picked up an envelope containing six silver gelatin photographs. One of the photographs caught my eye, so I purchased the pack. Inside were three postcard photographs. Though sending photographs as postcards began in the early 1890’s, paper manufactures did not start printing the back of the paper with a dividing line to separate the message from the address until 1902. Each of these has this, so the date would be 1902 or later. An additional dating method would be to examine the postal cancellation. Unfortunately, only one of the postcards has an actual message and address, the language and handwriting of which are indecipherable, but none of the cards were sent through the mail.
Each photograph is a formal rather than casual portrait by an itinerant photographer. Evidence of a makeshift studio exists in the temporary backgrounds, a painted drop in the earliest, a hide in the second and a pinned tarp in the third. We assume the images are more formal through observation of the children’s dress. Each wears an elaborate costume germane to their culture or country. Possibly the photographs were taken in connection with a festival or yearly event, where cultural history is celebrated. Since the three images depict members of the same family, we can arrange them chronologically by looking at the age of one of the girls. The first two are the most informative and set the stage for the photograph of deeper vernacular interest.
The first is a group portrait of four children and a man in his early thirties. The children, three girls and a boy, have names written below them in Cyrillic-Latin script. Though I have yet to decipher the names of the oldest girl and the boy, the youngest child is Beca or Vesa, a Slavic name meaning cheerful. The other child, older than the boy, is Ljuba, meaning love. Vesa is around two years old and Ljuba is possibly six or seven. The oldest child, a girl, may be eleven or twelve and the boy is about four or five. Both Ljuba and her older sister wear white veils over a chain and coin headpiece. The veils are held in place by a wreath of flowers. Each of the girls is dressed in similar attire with a long woven skirt, a white blouse and an elbow length sleeved jacket. The man, most likely the father of the children, wears a flat cap, a wool suit, collarless shirt, vest and no tie. This actually helps date the photograph to between 1910 and 1919 when ascots and bow ties fell out of fashion. Further dating exists in the use of a flat cap, which, after originating in Scotland in the 19th century, became widely popular among European men prior to WWI.
In the second photograph, there are still five people, but the father is missing and a new child is present. This photograph has no writing on the front, but the name Rose Naum is written on the back. When compared to the first photograph, Ljuba and Vesa are recognizable, standing to the left of the photograph with their siblings in front of a large long-wool hide, either tacked to the wall or hung across a door opening. Vesa and the youngest sibling, a child of about two or three years old, are each holding a honeycomb on a stick, a treat still offered today at regional fairs. Vesa is looking down at the treat instead of at the photographer. The presence of the honeycomb treat reinforces the idea that these images may have been taken during a festival or feast day.
Assuming these children are all one family, we can see some connection between the two photographs. In the second image, Ljuba appears to be wearing her older sister’s ornate belt and possibly a modification of the skirt she wears in the earlier photograph. Additionally, Vesa is wearing the skirt Ljuba wore in the first photograph. The oldest child is now a teenager and assumes her father’s role in guiding the younger children by holding Vesa’s arm with one hand and the hand of the youngest with the other. This child is a boy, holding his honeycomb on a stick, and wearing a necklace of string with a few beads and a cross.
These two postcard photographs provide a context for viewing one of the best wedding photographs ever. The setting is in the open air. We see upward of 50 people standing in front of a stone building with a ceramic tiled roof over a porch or portico. The stone cornice, just visible at the top of the photograph, may indicate we are outside the walls of a church. The building fills the top of the picture, starting from the right. Further to the left, behind the stone building is a wooden barn-like structure with wide-open entry points. Further to the right is a rocky hillside with a crescent of sky peaking over the ridge. In front of this background stand the people, men in front and women popping up behind, surrounding the bride and groom as they all pose for the photographer.
We recognize the bride as Ljuba, now about 17 or 18 years old, the second oldest sibling in the two postcard pictures. She is dressed, as are all the women in the photograph, in the traditional manner found in the earlier family portraits. Ljuba holds a tall candlestick in her left hand, her arm intertwined with her groom’s right arm as he stands next to her. The groom holds a similar candle in his right hand. Both candles are visibly alight, their flames bending in the wind.
The groom is in his mid-twenties and looks splendid in a double-breasted suit, buttoned shirt with turned down collar and no tie. Being the only man in a double-breasted suit, the groom may help us date the photograph to the mid-1920’s when the Duke of Windsor helped usher in the heyday of double-breasted suits following WWI. Any man buying a suit for his wedding would want, of course, the latest fashion – though he was not adventurous enough to purchase the other male accessory introduced by the Duke, the tie. Possibly these were slower to catch on in Eastern Europe, as only three of the eighteen men in the foreground are wearing Windsor knotted ties.
Though it is difficult to definitively identify Ljuba’s other siblings, Vesa appears to be standing to the left of the groom, and her older brother may be the young man lying like a Cosmo centerfold in the lower foreground of the picture, surrounded by nine men and a boy, laying or kneeling for the photograph. One person distinguishable from the sea of men surrounding the bride is the bespectacled and bearded priest who wears a phelonion over his vestments and holds a censor in his right hand. In the Orthodox Church, the phelonion, a cape like garment with a solid front piece pulled over the head, goes over a double stole, the priest in the photograph wears his over an embroidered chasuble, giving reason to suspect he is Catholic rather than Orthodox. His presence in the photograph marks the importance religion plays in the culture.
There is so much else going on in this picture, it is hard to know where to focus next. Several of the men have handkerchiefs pinned to their suits. Three have wooden spoons in their lapels and one has a spoon stuck up in the cap on his head. Two men hold clay vessels aloft, signaling that the libation period of the celebration has begun. One of these, a tie wearer with a spoon in his lapel and some form of headdress reminiscent of a fez kneels on one knee. Behind him stands a broadly smiling man with a rifle, his finger poised on the trigger, while back further, someone holds a flag or banner that hangs in falling folds from the pole that supports it above the crowd. The other person holding a clay vessel aloft wears a fedora and kneels directly in front of the bride. Next to him, a young man elevates a small shot glass of clear liquid in the expression of a toast.
Best of all, the photographer has chosen to record the decisive moment just before a possible turn of events would etch this celebration into the minds of everyone present. To the right of the man with the fez is the oldest person in the picture, a white-haired gentleman, kneeling in an overcoat with a wool collar. He holds his black wool hat and another cloth in his left hand. Over his shoulder hangs another larger cloth, possibly a white linen tablecloth. As he kneels for the photographer, the old man is unaware of the young man to his back right – the man with the spoon tucked into the cap on his head – pointing a revolver at the back of his head.
Narrowing his eyes and grinning to show a misshaped front tooth, the would-be shooter sharpens his aim, unaware that to the left behind him, two brothers, with an undeniable familial resemblance, stand ready to cause him pain. One brother points toward the air as if counting down, “three, two, one,” while the other brother holds his fist above the gun wielder’s head, ready to thump the jokester at the end of the countdown, all while our bride and groom gaze tiredly toward the camera. What happened one moment later?
My guess? Ljuba and her beau lived happily ever after, their wedding photograph a splendid example of Vernacular Photography for many years to come.