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Essay by Marta Dahó



In media res.

Down-spaces and setbacks in vernacular photography

by Marta Dahó

We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and the far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at the moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.

"Of Other Spaces", Michel Foucault

Useful, domestic and heterotopic: that is how vernacular nature of photography is defined. In his book Vernaculaires, Clement Cheroux not only clarifies the nuances of that so evasive notion, which etymology would be connected to the service, but also from the first pages put us on paradoxes focus that the vernacular photography concept embodies. The first refers to the conditions of a flexible identity.

If the term refers to a utilitarian picture, that performed a specific role – and, as we know, photography can play several —, the paradox is that although it has been created with a specific aim (topographic, scientific, military, legal, police, medical, informative, commercial, family…), would adopt its vernacular character by losing its functionality or by stepping away from the intimacy of the family that has generated them. That is, only after being orphan or reformed, pictures would have in their selves a particular vernacular aura.


The ontological ambivalence of vernacular photography does not end here: it is defined by another particularly contradictory direction. Consider as the alter ego of artistic photography, whether by the way it works whether by its apparent triviality, the photography assumes a vernacular identity when becoming artistic material. Although that appropriation has been handled, in the artistic field, in multiple and diverse ways, we could make two main forms. Anyway, the orphan or seized photography from its original context is used directly and physically as photography object, whatever its additional level of intervention is.


The list of examples is endless, but in a temporary constellation way we can point the series Death and Disaster by Andy Warhol, the Atlas by Gerhard Richter or the work of Christian Boltanski, that also suggest that appropriation is produced in the work of younger generations, as Fae Richard Photo Archive by Zoe Leonard; Unofficial, by Lucia Nimcova; Un Camp pour les Bohemians, by Mathieu Pernot and, of course, the work of Clare Strand, where the vernacular photography has a particularly important role.


... with the vernacular photography we are invariably in medias res: confronted with a history already begun, whose previous details we tend to ignore almost completely.


There would also be a much more subtle and disguised way of directing ordinary photography to the artistic field: that which is achieved by emulating its style. The pictures that make up the books that Ed Ruscha developed in the sixties are a famous case for their later influence, but we could also refer to the set of postcards made by Stephen Shore in 1971, Tall in Texas: Greetings from Amarillo, where he took responsibility for the distribution in kiosks and tobacco stores, or his American Surfaces series, where he propose to imitate amateur aesthetics with such rigor that his photographs seemed instantaneous and absolutely perfect. This strange prowess of rehearsing a possible vernacular style was not entirely new. Another photographer had already devoted himself to this issue: Walker Evans, although he preferred to call it "documentary style".


In this operation of transit from the vernacular image to the field of art, in addition to the artists, another agent disputes the ability to cross the border of the ordinary with the extraordinary: the museum institution. The MoMA was, for some years, one of the most active, and the consideration to the vernacular marked the configuration direction of an autonomous history of photography, as John Szarkowski attempted to compose. One of the cases that generated more literature was the one of Eugène Atget, although it could also refer to the importance of a retrospective of American topographic photography of the 19th century, following the criticism of the New Topographics exhibition. Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.


In sum, two fundamental circumstances seem to rule the complexity of the concept of vernacular photography. On the one hand, its humble beginnings: its list of work rendered. On the other hand, the constant exposure to the courtship of his eternal pretender: art. Seen from this perspective, the whole vernacular image will have at least two lives: a first utilitarian phase outside the parameters that govern its artistic legitimacy, and a second life in which a new status, a new range within the artistic hierarchy of which is worthy, only after having gone through the necessary adjustments to the 'resingularization' of its previously indistinct and prosaic body.


In any case, in whatever form this transmutation is produced, whether the manipulated, intervened or altered photography, as if its reproduction in a new support were realized in the most transparent way, that is, as object trouvé, we could say that with the vernacular photography we are invariably in medias res: confronted with a history already begun, whose previous details we tend to ignore almost completely. And if this does not stop redoubling a circumstance that photography normally already offers, due to its potential ubiquity, what spaces opens this insertion of the vernacular image in the bosom of art? What gaps leave your displacement? How to give visibility to absences?

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Essay published in ArchivoZine 17

The Vernacular, In the Age of Visual Culture

Marta Dahó is a freelance curator, researcher, and teacher of the history of photography.