Vernacular photography — a means to avoid an end


A woman in a corseted, white-lace dress stares straight ahead as she unveils a framed funerary portrait of another young woman. This sepia-toned 19th-century photograph is historian and curator Geoffrey Batchen’s choice for the very first image of “Suspending Time: Life – Photography – Death” at the Izu Museum, in Mishima.

The stiff pose, expressionless face and odd scenario is a far cry from the snapshots most of us are familiar with, where friends and family are usually smiling for the camera or caught in a candid moment. But they are of the same genre: vernacular photography — pictures of everyday life taken by amateur or unknown photographers.

Today, digital cameras have ignited an explosion in vernacular photography. We see thousands of examples posted online on Flickr and Facebook; we e-mail and tweet them with the click of a button. They verify our existence, reminding us, and showing others, what we are doing and where we have been. But they also foreshadow our limited time on Earth — just like the image of the woman in white, which Batchen notes in the exhibition catalog, “offers a quite extraordinary proposition: that photography can be used against itself to depict an eternal afterlife.”

The homage to the funerary portrait that opens the show was recorded for posterity over 120 years ago. In fact, all photos, whether a profile image on a social networking site or a family portrait on the mantelpiece can outlive their subjects. Batchen and other photo-historians have commented on this close association of photography and death, often citing Roland Barthes, who wrote in “Camera Lucida”: “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”

As alluded to in the show’s title, photographs link both the future and the past to the present. Unlike the pixels of digital images that we can “attach” to e-mails, however, our awareness of the connection is heightened by the actual physical being of the eerily beautiful funerary images at the Izu Photo Museum. This is enhanced by ornamentation: colored tints and paint; elaborate frames, wax flowers, even the hair of the deceased. The exhibition’s collection of 1940s-’50s Mexican fotoescultura offers perhaps the most unusual example of physicality, where the portraits, placed under beveled glass, project an unnerving 3-D appearance.

Though interactivity wasn’t the goal of the photographers, many of these works also involve viewer participation. The daguerreotypes, which were developed on silver plates and were the first form of commercial photography, can only be seen properly from certain angles. Some portraits are set in tiny portable frames designed to be held in the palm, while others have been incorporated into jewelry to be worn close to the skin, such as a young girl’s portrait that is attached to a braided human-hair bracelet.

One of the few named photographers of this largely anonymous collection is Shin’ichi Suzuki, a Japanese pioneer of the craft, whose portrait is printed on a ceramic burial urn. The urn, a more direct approach to memorial keepsakes, was likely a promotional item created to show off Suzuki’s photographic processing skills at a time when the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) fueled a demand for photographs of soldiers before their deployment.

When it was first introduced from the West during the 1840s, photography was looked upon with suspicion and superstition, but war changed everything. As explained in the catalog by exhibition researcher Masashi Kohara, the need to memorialize the honor of fallen Japanese soldiers helped spur the popular acceptance of photography.

These particular Japanese images project a sense of honor, with subjects posing with samurai swords during the 1870s and then later in more Western-style uniforms. But other ancestor portraits, more similar to those in the West, also became popular in Japan. Taken with the subjects’ imminent deaths in mind, these portraits, as Batchen notes, have the “predictable aesthetic values of an ID-photo.” Such photos, usually with the subjects unsmiling and in static poses, would be placed at family shrines in homes or displayed during Obon (festival to honor the dead).

What links this diverse collection of images is their artlessness, the absence of the creator. In the final room of the Izu Museum’s exhibition, Batchen takes us out of the studio and introduces us to the photographers, who reveal themselves in telltale shadows stretching across images. In snapshot after snapshot, the photographer’s common gaffe is repeated. A dark figure creeps up the leg of a young smiling woman as she leans back on a verdant lawn, another intrudes at the corner of a group shot of Japanese children, while yet another looks as if it’s supporting the weight of a kimono-clad woman on its head.

The displayed clutter of smiling faces and sunlit scenery might seem to be a radical jump from the contrived funerary portraits next-door. But the reoccurring shadow, which invites us to ponder the relationship between the people in front of and behind the camera, also alludes to the ever-present specter of death, the grim reaper lurking on the fringes of life.

Some of the snapshot shadows are so prominent that they appear deliberate. Batchen accentuates this with inclusion of work by two art photographers — Daido Moriyama and Lee Friedlander — who are famous for welcoming their own shadows in their compositions. Through this juxtaposition, the exhibition takes yet another turn, in which we are invited to consider the aesthetic value of vernacular photography.

Nowadays digital cameras come equipped with filters that can replicate the charm of bygone sepia, black-and- white and Kodachrome film, but clearly it isn’t the same. Perhaps this is why we are also seeing a revival of analog cameras, toy cameras and Polaroids, and movement away from pixels that can be photoshopped to “perfection.” Could this stem from our desire to reconnect with the unpredictable and tangible records of life?

“Suspending Time: Life — Photography — Death” at the Izu Museum runs till Aug. 20; admission ¥800; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Wed. To get there, take the JR Tokaido Line to Mishima Station, where there is a free shuttle-bus service to Clematis no Oka, the multicultural and restaurant facility, which the gallery is a part of. For more information, visit