Adaptations of Vernacular Photography: Shawn Michelle Smith’s Research and Art

Shawn Michelle Smith offers us a multifaceted view of vernacular photography through her artistic reinterpretations and thought provoking writings. Currently teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she shares with us how she looks at and plays with both personal and public images that reflect America's complex culture of yesterday and today.

Shawn Michelle Smith offers us a multifaceted view of vernacular photography through her artistic reinterpretations and thought provoking writings. Currently teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she shares with us how she looks at and plays with both personal and public images that reflect America’s complex culture of yesterday and today.

What first brought you to reflect on vernacular photography and focus your academic career in this field?

One of the things that intrigues me most about photography is the vast range of cultural forms it takes.  It is used by scientists, artists, reporters, and activists, as well as ordinary people every day.  Photography is ubiquitous, and people use it to record their daily lives, to create personal archives, and to document their histories.  I began to study photography because I was interested in cultural history, and it seemed that this single technology could open up many different pathways into understanding American culture.

Shawn Michelle Smith, Untitled, from the series Excess and Accident, silver gelatin prints, 24 x 30 inches

Your academic writing goes beyond the realm of vernacular photography and also explores photography’s role in the politics of race, especially in the United States. What inspired you to study and write about subjects such as lynching photos, W. E. B. Du Bois’s world exhibit, etc?

In the nineteenth century, soon after the invention of photography, people began to celebrate it as a “democratic” form of representation.  As a relatively inexpensive technology, photography made self-representation through portraiture available to a much broader set of consumers.  As early as 1861, the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood the radical potential of such widespread representation, and he celebrated photography as a tool of social and political progress.  He and other African Americans used photography throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to craft new images of themselves — images that would challenge racist misrepresentations and stereotypes prevalent at the time.  In large part, I see that visual protest as the driving force behind the collection of photographs of African Americans W. E. B. Du Bois compiled for the 1900 Paris Exposition.  In my book Photography on the Color Line, I situate those images in their historical context in order to understand the ways they disputed the racist images of African Americans in wide circulation at the time.

Portrait by Thomas E. Askew, in W. E. B. Du Bois, Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A., 1900, Daniel Murray Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Portrait by Thomas E. Askew, in W. E. B. Du Bois, Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A., 1900, Daniel Murray Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Through your analysis of numerous collections of vernacular photography, have you noticed the presence of any national or regional themes? In other words, do you think an “American snapshot” style could exist?

I love this idea.  I haven’t actually discerned a particular “American style” in the snapshot, but I think it would make for a fascinating project.  Christopher Pinney has studied the emergence and practice of photography in India, and he has noted several things that are distinct about it as a national style.  In the United States, there are certainly trends and ways of posing snapshot subjects that shift over time.  In the early twentieth century, not long after the invention of the portable Kodak camera, many snapshots were still quite formal.  The images my grandparents made of their children are all carefully posed to commemorate special events.  They seem quite serious compared to many of the snapshots in circulation today.

Shawn Michelle Smith, Untitled, from the series Fragments from a Family Album, silver gelatin prints, 64 x 34 inches

You are also an artist – can you describe how your artistic endeavors compliment your academic pursuits?

My work as an artist is actually quite similar to my work as a scholar.  In both modes I begin by looking closely at a group of images that intrigues or disturbs me in some way.  I look for patterns that emerge across the images, and unusual details that stand out from the larger frame.  I am particularly fascinated by elements that don’t seem to “fit” within their images, details that seem to disrupt the intended composition.  When I’m writing, I’ll often draw attention to those things and follow the narrative paths to which they point.  When I’m working visually, I’ll literally focus on such details, cropping out the rest of the picture to highlight the aberrant or interesting gesture or thing.  In both cases, then, I’m asking other people to look with me, to see what I see in a photograph.

Shawn Michelle Smith, Untitled, from the series Excess and Accident, silver gelatin prints, 24 x 30 inches

Photographs can clearly be incorporated into new art pieces in a plethora of ways. I noticed that one of your methods was Polaroid transfers, such as in Grass, or Teacups. Can you speak about the different ways you play with snapshots?

I have worked with snapshots and other found images in several different ways, making silver gelatin prints, Polaroid emulsion transfer prints, and digital archival ink prints.  With the Polaroid transfers I especially liked the idea of literally taking the emulsion from an image and placing it in a new context.  Those images also highlight the materiality of photography itself, drawing attention to the delicacy of the photographic surface and substance.

Shawn Michelle Smith, Jello, from the series Maintaining a Life, Polaroid transfer prints, 19 x 49 inches

Where materials are concerned, you draw from both a personal and public base of images. Do you mentally differentiate between working with your own family’s photos versus other found, and often anonymous, photos?

My visual work began with my own family snapshots.  On one level I felt comfortable working with them and manipulating them because I felt a sense of ownership over them, as well as an intense attachment to them.  On the other hand, I was nervous about what my family might make of my work with these images, because much of it cuts against the sentimental impulse we associate with family photography.  I hesitated at first to work with public images, but I became increasingly interested in the ways “the public” might be said to own them, and in the ways they can be manipulated to produce alternative interpretations.  I often reduce such images to minimal forms, hoping that they will be vaguely recognizable but not quite identifiable.  I’m interested in drawing attention to how much we depend on images to remember and craft both public and private histories.

Shawn Michelle Smith, Untitled, from the series Fragments from a Family Album, silver gelatin prints, 30 x 16 inches


Shawn Michelle Smith, Untitled (Indiana, 1930), from the series In the Crowd, archival ink print, 14 x 11 inches

Shawn Michelle Smith, Untitled (Florida, 1935), from the series In the Crowd, archival ink print, 14 x 11 inches

On your personal website, you state: “I seek to understand how people use photographs to make both personal and political statements.” Have you come to any conclusions, thus far, about these uses of photography?

I’m invested in how people use photographs to make both personal and political statements because it’s such an open-ended question.  People employ photographs in different ways at different times to accomplish different aims.  The same image can be put to competing purposes.  Photographic meaning isn’t a stable, given thing, and I’m intrigued by how people use images to craft divergent understandings.

Shawn Michelle Smith, Untitled (Abu Ghraib), archival ink prints, 14 x 39 inches

What are you currently working on?

Currently, I’m completing a book about the ways photography changed visual perception in the nineteenth century, literally making more visible, while simultaneously calling attention to how much is not seen with the naked human eye.  The book is called Photography and the Optical Unconscious, and it will be the first book to include my artwork as part of its visual argument.

Interview by LG