The term vernacular photography is used in several related senses. Each is in one way or another meant to contrast with received notions of fine-art photography. Vernacular photography is also distinct from both found photography and amateur photography. The term originated among academics and curators, but has moved into wider usage.
Current thinking about vernacular photography was anticipated as early as 1964 by John Szarkowski, director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1962 until 1991. In his book The Photographer’s Eye, Szarkowski proposed to recognize what he called “functional photography” alongside the traditional category of fine-art photography; his point was that all photography could possess the merits he sought. Examples in Szarkowski's book and the exhibition it was based on included ordinary snapshots, magazine photos, studio portraiture, and specialized documentary work by anonymous professionals.
The current wave of interest began in 2000, with a “seminal” essay, “Vernacular Photographies,” by the art historian and curator Geoffrey Batchen. Batchen used the term vernacular photography to refer to “what has always been excluded from photography’s history: ordinary photographs, the ones made or bought (or sometimes bought and then made over) by everyday folk from 1839 until now, the photographs that preoccupy the home and the heart but rarely the museum or the academy.” Batchen had in mind a wide range of photographies made by or for ordinary people, including intentional art and the work of certain professionals: daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, snapshots and snapshot albums, “panoramas of church groups, wedding pictures, formal portraits of the family dog. . . . To these examples could be added a multitude of equally neglected indigenous genres and practices, from gilt Indian albumen prints, to American painted and framed tintypes, to Mexican fotoescultura, to Nigerian ibeji images.”
The Museum of Modern Art currently distinguishes vernacular photography from both fine-art photography and professional photography, singling out snapshots in particular: it defines vernacular photography as “[i]mages by amateur photographers of everyday life and subjects, commonly in the form of snapshots. The term is often used to distinguish everyday photography from fine art photography.” Similarly, the Ackland Art Museum (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) defines vernacular photographs as “those that are made by individuals, typically presumed to be non-artists, for a wide variety of reasons, including snapshots of everyday subjects taken for personal pleasure.”
In a different definition, the Museum of Modern Art broadens vernacular photography to include all manner of non-art photographs made “for a huge range of purposes, including commercial, scientific, forensic, governmental, and personal.” The Art Institute of Chicago agrees, referring to vernacular photography as “those countless ordinary and utilitarian pictures made for souvenir postcards, government archives, police case files, pin-up posters, networking Web sites, and the pages of magazines, newspapers, or family albums.”
Though variably understood, “vernacular photography” has caught on as a term since Batchen used it because he has also influenced critical and curatorial thinking about the underlying photographic material. Like the related terms vernacular music and vernacular architecture, “vernacular photography” under all interpretations not only directs attention to forms that until recently have been ignored by “the museum or the academy,” but also puts the focus on the social contexts in which the photos were originally made. At least in critical and curatorial use, the term largely supersedes the earlier “found photography,” which was most concerned with the eye of the finder. “Found photos” were aesthetic recontextualizations or reinterpretations by artists. By contrast, the current “vernacular photos” are not being taken out of context or reinterpreted, and in most cases they claim no aesthetic value; they simply document some presumably overlooked aspect of social or photo history.
Vernacular photography is also to be distinguished from amateur photography. While vernacular photography is generally situated outside received art categories (though where the lines are drawn may vary), “amateur photography” contrasts with “professional photography”: “[A]mateur [photography] simply means that you make your living doing something else" (see also Photographer).
Museum exhibitions highlighting vernacular photography have included:
[T]he category of the vernacular is defined mostly by what it excludes: fine art.
If a photograph wasn’t made for non-utiliarian, self-consciously expressive reasons that allow it to be designated ‘art,’ it devolves to this grab-bag left-over category designated ‘vernacular.’ Vernacular is thus defined not by what it is, but what it isn’t.
Yet, ironically, it was the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) photography curator John Szarkowski, often chastised by modern critics as for his refusal to acknowledge photogaphy’s vital social function, who first explored the esthetic value of snapshots and, more broadly, vernacular photography in fine art contexts.
It is the thesis of this book that the study of photographic form must consider the medium’s ‘fine art’ tradition and its ‘functional’ tradition as intimately interdependent aspects of a single history.
Batchen’s vivid delineation of vernacular histories of photography and the problems they raise not only alerted readers to new objects of study but also opened the critical discussion around them to new interdisciplinary methodologies.
’Found photography’ usually means vernacular photos that have been discovered and reconsidered as art.
The curators [of Unfinished Stories: Snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Collection] say these accidental photos, along with [collector Peter J.] Cohen’s other images, tell the story of photography in America that can’t be ignored. ‘We can’t really study the field or think that we understand photography by limiting ourselves to the fine art world,’ [Museum of Fine Arts curator of photography Karen] Haas said.
Representing: Vernacular Photographs of, by, and for African Americans brings together studio portraits from an important North Portland family album, vernacular snapshots, and Polaroids to demonstrate the rich diversity of African-American life and experience from the late 1800s through the 1990s.
Most of the photographs are anonymous and capture moments in the lives of ordinary people, often depicting celebrations, vacations, and gatherings of family and friends. Individual images were chosen for their eclectic, idiosyncratic, sometimes humorous nature as well as for their subject matter, with a particular focus on the lives and activities of women.
'This incredible exhibition of amateur snapshots depicts broadly shared aspects of everyday life,' said Julián Zugazagoitia, Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell CEO & Director of the Nelson-Atkins. 'It highlights the deep cultural importance of photography, a visual tradition that flourishes today in images that are made and shared in a variety of ways.'