Finding New Value in the Work of Anonymous Shutterbugs

A detail from a military stamp scrapbook album, from about 1943-59, included in a new exhibition at the Walther Collection in New York.

A woman in a tree. Water skiers. Factory machinery. An army officer. Niagara Falls. A séance. A disobedient dog. Nine nuns … The subjects are almost limitless.

This is the myriad realm of “vernacular photography,” the catchall term for snapshots that amateurs have been taking since 1888, when George Eastman introduced the first hand-held Kodak camera, priced at $25 (about $600 today). Billions of images have been created since then, but only in recent years have amateurs’ contributions begun to be comprehensively assessed as both collectibles and cultural artifacts.

“I look at these images as social history, personal archives,” said Artur Walther, one of the world’s leading photography collectors, who has private museums devoted to the medium in New York and in Neu-Ulm, Germany. His New York space is currently presenting the exhibition “Scrapbook Love Story: Memory and the Vernacular Photo Album,” focusing on albums and scrapbooks from the 1890s to the 1970s.

Mr. Walther said his collection, rich in holdings of works by African and Chinese artists as well as Western classics, has concentrated on vernacular photography for the last five years, amassing more than 20,000 images. “All of us have these, and some are very unique,” he added.

In October, vernacular photography was given a thorough critical examination at a two-day symposium in New York organized by the Walther Collection, Columbia University and the Barnard Center for Research on Women. The panel discussions included presentations on images of African kings of the late 19th century; a 1920s African-American escape artist; and Bobbie, a cross-dresser who featured in the pioneering Transvestia magazine in the 1960s.

And unlike photographs by named artists from these periods, amateur images are relatively inexpensive.

“I can buy stuff every week, every day. The prices haven’t gone up that much,” said Peter Cohen, a collector based in New York who has acquired more than 70,000 vernacular photographs from flea markets, fairs, dealers and other enthusiasts since the late 1980s. “Twenty dollars can still buy you a good image.”

Such images conveyed “a great sense of life, particularly the American ones, which were always free and unrestrained right from the beginning of snapshot photography,” he added.

Mr. Cohen has made gifts from his collection to more than 30 institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He recently donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York a group of portraits of individuals in the “paper moon” photo booths popular in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. These will be included in the forthcoming exhibition “Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography,” which opens in July in time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The show will be co-organized by Mia Fineman, associate curator in the department of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who helped to curate “Other Pictures: Vernacular Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection” (including that naughty dog and those nuns) at the Met in 2000.

“For people interested in photography, there’s a special charm to these objects in terms of what they do and how they have been used. They speak directly to the viewer,” Ms. Fineman said. “The medium has its own genius. It produced images more surprising than anything that existed before photography.” Images expressively distorted by double-exposure or by what Ms. Fineman called the “slapstick struggle between human and machine” are particularly admired.

Because of their relatively low market value, these everyday images aren’t the stuff of sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. But Swann Auction Galleries in New York includes a “visual culture” section in its three annual sales of photographs. On Feb. 21, the company is to offer groups of anonymous snapshots of American factory machinery from the 1950s, estimated at about $2,000 per lot. The sale will also include images of women wrestlers from the 1970s and Mobil Oil service station from the 1930s to ’50s. So far, spiritualism has proved Swann’s most valuable vernacular subject. In 2013, an album of 27 photographs taken during séances in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the early 1920s sold for $93,750.

Daile Kaplan, director of the photography department at Swann, said there had been a broad reassessment of amateur photography over the last 10 years. “It was a specialized market, but now contemporary art collectors and artists have got involved,” she said. “People are coming to the genre with the expectation that there are fresh discoveries to be made,” she added. “There’s more interest in the idea of images, of what the image means to me personally, rather than just a name or brand of artist.”

People engage with old amateur photographs for different reasons. Scholars value them for revealing the hidden realities of social and political history. Collectors admire their visual originality, and — at the more obsessive end of the collecting spectrum — the opportunities they afford to accumulate images of a specific subject.

Thanks to digital cameras and social media, amateurs are now taking and sharing more photographs than at any time in history. But these images are rarely printed. Exhibitions of vernacular photography tend to have a cutoff date in the 1970s or ‘80s.

Has photography lost something now that hardly anyone uses film? Ms. Fineman doesn’t think so. “We are living in a golden age of photography,” she said. “Digital technology has only amplified the power of photography as an ‘everyday’ art form.”

Image-hosting websites such as Instagram or Flickr are, after all, digital photo albums. And they are faster and cheaper to create than in the days of processing film.

“My main concern about the digital turn in vernacular photography has to do with the difficulty of preserving and archiving these images for future generations,” said Ms. Fineman. “Tossing a handful of snapshots in a shoe box is a lot easier.”

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