Little Pictures Big Lives: Snapshots from the Archives of American Art

July 1, 2011 - September 31, 2011
Exhibited in Washington, D.C. at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery

Snapshots—thousands of them—are tucked away among the letters, documents, and diaries of artists in the Archives of American Art. These little pictures give us a view into the intimate lives of “larger than life” people.

Most of these images date from the golden age of snapshot photography—the 1920s through the 1960s—when cameras first became widely owned and used to document all kinds of occasions, both public and private. In today’s digital age of point–and–shoot, instant playback, and Photoshop, snapshots evoke an earlier era of photography, when there was a charm in capturing even the simplest of scenes.

Capturing the authentic and the incidental, snapshots provide an intimate look into artists’ lives—who they knew, who they loved, where they worked, where they went, and, perhaps most importantly, the little moments that made their lives rich and full.

— Merry Foresta, Guest Curator

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Amateur photographers took their cameras everywhere and photographed everything, creating an almost stream-of-consciousness record of their lives. Snapshots provide us rare glimpses of what artists did in the privacy of their homes and how they played when they were away. Through snapshots the lives of artists become available to us. For a moment, we feel connected to these people and to their lives, which are not so different than ours.

Artists at party at Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s home, Brooklyn, ca. 1921
Walter Gropius's 80th birthday, 1963
Artists and architects at a restaurant, ca. 1950
Dizzy Gillespie with Gertrude Abercrombie on his birthday, 1964
Edith Gregor Halpert, 1965 Sept.

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Good snapshots are combinations of good intentions, good luck, and willing subjects. Snapshots of artists offer us the visual material out of which we can build the personal histories of artistic lives. The unguarded moments captured by snapshots of artists at work in their studios, outdoors at their easels, teaching classes, attending gallery openings, give us a real, if brief, look at artistic process.

N. C. Wyeth in his studio in Delaware, at work, 1904
Allen Tupper True in his studio, ca. 1901
Georgia O'Keeffe posing for Una Hanbury, 1967
George Ault at forest's edge, ca. 1920
Jasper Johns in his studio, 1963

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Family & Friends

The personal snapshots of abstract expressionist painters Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner further expand the public image of artists who already stand out as larger than life. These snapshots of art world celebrities Jackson and Lee relaxing on the beach in Southampton, in the studio with the dogs, or posing together with family, provide revealing behind-the-scenes glimpses of the sort we now expect of all celebrities, whether artists or not. Art critic, curator, and writer Bruce D. Kurtz explored the complex intersection of high art and popular culture. He began his career in 1966 as an artist, but he became widely known as a critic, writing about a new generation of conceptual, video, and abstract artists. The many Polaroids of his friends—artists, curators, and critics—made at parties and gallery openings provide a lively look at the art scene of New York and Los Angeles during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Harry Bowden taking a photograph on the beach, Aug. 1953
Jackson Pollock with his mother and Lee Krasner, 1950
Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner with friends and family, ca. 1950
Jackson Pollock with his dogs, ca. 1955
Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and others with animal bones, ca. 1950

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This is me!

Every photograph marks an instant in time. It both confirms and recalls the reality of that moment. It declares on behalf of both photographer and subject, “I was here!” Whether snapshots are made to capture private times, show-off moments, or some newly invented version of ourselves, the pictures are illustrations of moments that take on greater importance for having been saved by the camera. Art dealer Colin de Land invited anyone who visited his American Fine Arts gallery in New York to pick up one of the point-and-shoot cameras that were always on hand. The result was a continuous stream of snapshots documenting the day-to-day details of gallery life: installations, parties, gallery-goers, back-room hanging out. The pictures continued outside the gallery, too. De Land and his wife, art dealer Pat Hearn, made photographs constantly, creating a unique visual diary of their personal and public lives.

Colin de Land wearing sunglasses, ca. 1980
Christian Nagel talking on a cell phone, 2000 Oct. 5
Colin de Land at the beach, ca. 1980
Colin de Land at the beach, ca. 1980
Colin de Land swimming in the ocean, ca. 1980

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Travel albums

Equal parts visual diary, family history, and reportage, snapshot albums are objects where art, culture, history, and private life intersect. Walt Kuhn’s album describes an idyllic summer vacation with his family. Alexander Archipenko’s albums create a visual diary of trips to the American West, Canada, Mexico, and Asia. An album of snapshots and postcards from Bali reveals a different kind of travel. The faces and poses of Balinese peoples probably provided studies for both Archipenko and his students. While we may know the circumstances of the snapshots, we can’t always be sure who put the albums together.

Alexander Archipenko's travel photograph album, 1930
Alexander Archipenko's travel photograph album, 1930
Alexander Archipenko's travel photograph album, 1930
Alexander Archipenko's travel photograph album, 1930
Walt Kuhn's photograph album of Nova Scotia, 1912

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Honoré Sharrer used the camera to collect images for her paintings, making hundreds of snapshots of people, animals, and architectural details. She often asked her subjects to strike particular poses or wear particular costumes, and many of these figures can be found reproduced exactly in her paintings. Abstract painter Charles Green Shaw published a photography book New York—Oddly Enough in 1938. With its snapshots of buildings, architectural details, and shops, the book serves both as an anthology of urban details and a narrative of city life in the 1930s.

Teenage boys, ca. 1955
Teenage boys, ca. 1955
Teenage boys, ca. 1955
Dog posing on a table, ca. 1955
Dog posing on table, ca. 1955

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