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some definitions...

What is vernacular photography?


How much time have you got?  For the purposes of this website, I define vernacular photography as any photography/photograph that has a distinct purpose and function in the world.  Vernacular photography is a very broad category and encompasses the vast bulk of all photography.  Vernacular photography can be practised by the amateur or the professional, and while it may display considerable amounts of artistry, it does not (in its original intent--and this is a key distinction) aim to solely exist as an art object.  That being said, the boundaries between vernacular and art photography are porous, especially as time passes, and many vernacular photographs are now considered valuable art objects.  The work of Mike Disfarmer, for instance, is a clear example of photography that started out as vernacular, but has now entered the world of art photography.  A more problematic example might be the work of Vivian Maier.  Although an amateur street photographer, Maier's work was not originally exhibited or sold commercially for editorial or other purposes.  Her intent was to take powerful pictures.  Was she working in the tradition of an (amateur) art photographer?  I might suggest that she was and thus not include her work under the broad banner of vernacular work.  Looking from the other side, many photographers now celebrated as artists either started in the commercial photography world or did "vernacular" work, in addition to the work they considered fine art.  The term is slippery, vague, and inescapably problemmatic. But then again, so is life.


Thus, vernacular photography encompasses all of the following:

  • snapshot photography

  • photojournalism

  • fashion photography

  • pornography

  • documentary (or editorial) photography

  • advertising photography

  • medical photography

  • commercial and studio portraiture

  • scientific and medical photography

and many more...


So, what then is snapshot photography?


For my purposes, snapshot photography is defined essentially by the following three conditions:

  1. it is the work of an amateur

  2. its purpose is almost exclusively as an aide-memoire--a substitute for memory and remembrance of a particular person, event, etc.

  3. It is work that is commercially printed (ie, it is not developed and printed by the photographer, but by an outside, generally commercial, third party).  There are two variations on this: one would be the polaroid photograph, but I would argue that it, too, is printed by a third party (the commercial camera/film combination unique to that process); the other is the cyanotype.  You can find snapshots taken and printed as cyanotypes (probably by the picture taker, and not by a commercial photo printer or "finisher").


One can date the beginning of snapshot photography very accurately to 1888 when the first truly amateur camera, the "original kodak," was introduced.  That was the first time that the production of the physical, printed image was handed over to a manufacturing process and taken out of the hands of the individual photographic practitioner.


Some other terms (these are very brief and basic guides):

  • daguerreotypes: a very early photographic process (invented by M. Daguerre) where the image is formed on a highly polished sliver-plated sheet of metal.

  • ambrotypes: followed the daguerreotype.  The image here is formed on glass.

  • tintypes (also called ferrotypes): images formed on a collodion covered piece of lacquered iron (tin doesn't really come into the equation).

  • cdv's: cartes de visite.  these are images mounted on small cards (invented by another frenchman, M. Disderi).

  • cabinet cards: these are images mounted on larger cards (often they include the name of the photographer or studio)

  • boudoir cards: these are images mounted on even larger cards.

  • RPPC: Real Photo Postcard.  These are actual photographs (not printed images) printed with a postcard back. They are a genre unto themselves, and contain both regular snapshot images, but also studio (and arcade imagery), and manipulated imagery (like exageration photos...where an element of the photograph---frequently an insect, but also vegetables, etc.--are exagerated in size to comic effect).


Because the number of photographic processes and formats is numerous and cannot be fully covered here, good places for clarification are online glossaries, as can be found here, and here, and here.  A good, easy to digest and keep-on-hand book is this one.




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