Untangling Roles of the Vernacular Within Contemporary Photographic Practice

Photo provided by the author

Post by Lin VanderVliet

I recently came across the following quote by the artist Robert Gober:

Whenever I give a talk about my work I am invariably asked who my influences are. Not what my influences are, but who...As if the gutter, misunderstandings, memories, sex, dreams, and books matter less than forebears do. After all, in terms of influences, it is as much the guy who mugged me on Tenth Street, or my beloved dog who passed away much too early, as it was Giotto or Diane Arbus.1

I enjoy Gober's quote for what it suggests, the intimacy in citing or revealing one's artistic influences—where what at first appears an academic inquiry in fact reveals the tendency to exacerbate a diaristic itch. That the metaphorical “gutter” of what our influences are could include the innumerable, often vernacular photographic images we regularly engage with—those which affect us through means both unspectacular and breathtaking—is certainly an intriguing possibility worth investigating.

Above is my second grade class portrait, taken when I was just seven years old. My expression sits somewhere between a scowl and the verge of upset. In efforts to look older, I'd sucked in the space between my chin and lower lip, forming a vacuum between my teeth and the inside of my mouth, causing a dimpled texture on my chin. It was a careless decision I'd made on a whim, now immortalized in the form of a wallet-sized image. This is what I looked like at age seven, it says, perpetually and mildly discomforted.

The impact of such impressions are explored in "Photography and Fetish" (1985), an essay by film theorist Christian Metz, which discusses the photograph's indexical nature and subsequent potential to function as fetishistic keepsake.2  Metz argues, that this is inherently based in the photographic dependency upon the spectator, whose willful gaze ultimately determines the 'duration' of the visual experience, and also in our tendency to designate the seemingly 'real' or 'authentic' as responsibilities we expect the photograph to uphold.3  Though we may approach photographic imagery with a level of skepticism (thanks partially to the advent of Photoshop), we can't help from wanting to believe in an entirely 'honest' image—to hinge our faith in the camera as producer of representational 'truth.' This desire is evident within a majority of vernacular photographic, uses including scrapbooking, album keeping, and social media image sharing.

There is both an innocence and ferocity to the way we tote around cameras during our travels and collect photographs like souvenirs. I am reminded of my own behaviors in relation to the albums I grew up with and the photographs I use to curate my presence today, the locket containing my grandparents' mirroring images, and of the times I've held onto pictures like talismans. In fifth grade, I used to carry around a standard sized print of my two dogs, cozied in their bed in my plastic folder. In high school, it was the picture of a crush, printed off the Internet and adhered to the inside of my agenda with a thick coating of laminate tape. Today, I have well over 2,000 photos stored on my phone. I thumb through each of them regularly for the sake of good luck and personal ritual.

© Sophie Calle
From Talking Pictures: People Speak About the Photographs That Speak to Them, 134.

In addition, there is frequently an edge of subtle malice in the images. Here (as always in regards to the notion of ritual), I think of an image of the artist Sophie Calle, in which the photographer describes a ubiquitous Polaroid snapshot taken of the back of her neck and the unexplainable presence of a thin red mark like a tiny laceration on its surface.4  She describes how it prompted her to stay indoors for nearly eight days, possessed with a gripping fear.5  This isn't, of course, to say that all vernacular images—whether of ourselves or others—possess such triggering capabilities, but rather rather of potential.6  It reminds us of the significance of the everyday, and how it can impact us in ways quite profound. When we are explicitly depicted (like in Calle's image), vernacular photography serves as a reoccurring point—a fetish activating a host of aggregate thoughts in which we find ourselves implicated. 

Vernacular images, of course, move beyond those personally important to oneself. The quintessential vernacular photograph is typically among the sort you might find at a yard sale in the middle of nowhere—worn corners and sepia tinged. Stern faces, tight lips, and uneven exposures; collectible ephemera seemingly displaced from an original narrative, practically begging the imagination to engage in calisthenics like filling in the captions of a cartoon drawing.  The recent exhibition, Unexpected held at the Philbrook Downtown in Tulsa, Oklahoma features a collection of vernacular photographs from mid-century America, owned by collector Marc Boone Fitzerman.7 Marked by only the makeshift captions which title each image, the photographs themselves make no distinctions between each other, offering only clues of narratives that can never be finished.8  We've no explanation for the automobile laying idly on its back, and there's only so much we can surmise about the woman rushing head first down a rickety water slide, or the man draping the forelimbs of a horse over his shoulders.9  Each depicted instance is equally confounding and mysterious. 



As for the use of vernacular imagery in contemporary practice, I recently came across a series titled, Imagine Finding Me, in which artist Chino Otsuka, inserts herself into the context of family photos by positioning her adult presence alongside that of her childhood self.10  While the immediate takeaway of this might initially seem that of a gimmick-y exercise with the intended goal of dazzling viewers by pressing the envelope of Photoshop's capabilities, a closer examination reveals the conceptual breadth behind the artist's work and the possibility that these personal, vernacular images are what her influences are. In deliberately seeking out vacation photos with which to perform her 'trick,' Otsuka parallels the transience of her youth and the impermanence of her travels.11  There's irony is how the grown figures of the aritst have been permanently montaged to their surroundings; a painstaking gesture evocative of the youth which can never be permanently held. The images are captivating because we enter their presence knowing we've been deceived. The series' title is based on this revelation and Otsuka dares us to accept the challenge. Unlike the predominate mindset which imbues much vernacular practice, however, the artist's images defy their expected role as evidence in challenging a perceived digestibility; we cannot approach these as mere artifacts or a collection of discarded ephemera. This applies as well to the work of well-known artists such as Hans Peter Feldmann and others who have built their careers upon the practice of arranging and organizing found non-art objects and everyday imagery.12  Where Otsuka mines for inspiration within her own vernacular “gutter,” Feldmann draws from others'.13

© Chino Otsuka
From http://flavorwire.com/433664/photographer-inserts-her-adult-self-next-to-her-childhood-self-in-family-photographs/5

© Hans-Peter Feldmann, One Pound Strawberries (2004)

What we are ultimately left with upon observing the work of Otsuka and Feldmann, is a glimpse into the deep reservoir of influence permitted by the everyday. If Gober's words are to be believed, the vernacular offers evidence of the complexity of the human condition and the ways in which our brains both process and respond to our surroundings.  While it may be impossible to fully unpack or tease apart every burst of energy that sustains us (or inspiration that strikes,) the influence of the familiar is often closer at hand than we're aware of. 

Lin VanderVliet recently graduated with Honors in Studio Art from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Her work seeks to promote a sense of  underlying anxiety by combining photographs with typed text. Reoccurring themes include: a fascination with performance, absurdity, the uncanny, and expressions of personal catharsis. Currently, she lives in New Jersey.

1  "Boulevard: An Interview with Katy Grannan" Daily Serving, accessed November 1, 2014,  http://dailyserving.com/2011/01/boulevard-an-interview-with-katy-grannan/
2 Christian Metz, "Photography and Fetish," The MIT Press 34 (Autumn, 1985): 87, accessed November 1, 2014, doi: http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.rollins.edu:2048/stable/778490.; 81
3 Metz, ”Photography and Fetish,” 82
4 Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman. Talking Pictures: People Speak About the Photographs That Speak to Them (Chronicle Books, 1994), 134
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 "The Decisive Vernacular Photograph," Hyperallergic, accessed November 1, 2014, http://hyperallergic.com/126554/the-decisive-vernacular-photograph/
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 "Photographer Insterts Her Adult Self Next to Her Childhood Self in Family Photographs," Flavorwire, accessed November 1, 2014, http://flavorwire.com/433664/photographer-inserts-her-adult-self-next-to-her-childhood-self-in-family-photographs
11 Ibid.
12 "Photographs versus Contemporary Art: Beyond the Pleasure Principle," Fotomuseum, accessed November 18, 2014, http://blog.fotomuseum.ch/2014/11/ii-photographs-versus-contemporary-art-beyond-the-pleasure-principle/
13 "Interview: Hans-Peter Feldmann," initi Art Magizine, accessed November 22, 2014, http://www.initiartmagazine.com/interview.php?IVarchive=33