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Beth Sorensen
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Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing the American Photo Album opens at Reed College

Groundbreaking exhibition explores the historic and artistic significance of America's earliest vernacular photo albums

Portland, OR (May 24, 2005) - An album revealing a mistress' love affair with Al Capone; serial imagery of tent-city street life after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake - these are but two of 70 outstanding albums inviting the viewer to enter the everyday lives of turn-of-the-century Americans. Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing the American Photo Album , premieres May 24 to July 11, 2005 at Reed College's Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery in Portland, Oregon.

This groundbreaking exhibition is the first to specifically explore the under-recognized visual creativity, storytelling, and folk artistry of early American vernacular photo albums. Snapshot Chronicles includes approximately 70 exemplary albums spanning from 1898 to 1935. The exhibition is curated by Reed College Cooley Gallery director Stephanie Snyder and noted Bay Area photography collector Barbara Levine. The exhibition is curated from Levine's extensive collection of over 300 albums, vintage cameras, and related ephemera.

These remarkable albums contain visual narratives capturing phenomena such as a mock wedding between two women, the personal and professional life of an all-girl circus, and the experiences of a solider in the trenches during WWI. The albums reveal the deliberate organization of personal and social experience expressed in serial imagery, hilarious narratives and ingenious collage techniques.

Snapshot Chronicles travels to the San Francisco Main Public Library in 2006, with a national tour underway during 2006-08. A comprehensive color catalogue co-published by Reed College and Princeton Architectural Press accompanies the exhibition.

Vernacular photography
"The invention of inexpensive and portable cameras at the turn of the 20 th century made it possible for everyday people to document their lives spontaneously and artistically," explains Snyder. "Snapshot Chronicles elucidates the amazing folk art made as a result of the sudden access of the camera into public and private domains."

The exhibition demonstrates the unprecedented creativity with which this first generation of vernacular photographers arranged their lives into picture-stories--also possessing the technology to develop and print the photographs at home. Eastman Kodak specifically marketed this "domestic" technology to women and children in massive advertising campaigns. This new mode of creating memory and capturing experience quickly became the most ubiquitous mode of sharing meaning and legacies.

Levine notes, "This history is particularly relevant in relationship to the recent explosion of digital imaging and computer-based forms of everyday storytelling, or 'blogging.' These early albums are the antecedents of our culture's current ease and obsession with digital imaging."

Rather than focus on the nostalgic aspects of these vintage albums, Snapshot Chronicles foregrounds their historic significance as windows into unseen lives and their importance as art objects. Snyder notes, "These early albums contain the same inventive collage techniques and narrative exploration seen in the work of early 20 th century artists such as Picasso, Max Ernst and the Surrealists. In the 1960s, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol brought vernacular aesthetics to the mainstream of contemporary art, and contemporary artists such as Douglas Gordon and Carrie Mae Weems create work specifically informed by the vernacular."

The 70 albums curated into the exhibition range from small, entirely hand-made jewels, to store-bought, thick, faux-leather albums with black paper pages.   Some albums are notable because the individual photographs are exquisite, revealing a surprising sophistication for the medium and its expressive qualities; other albums are remarkable as forms of folk art, with photos and other raw materials transformed into visual memorabilia. It is not unusual to see a beautiful landscape on one spread and, with a turn of the page, discover a dizzying pattern created from snapshots cut into unusual shapes, letterforms, and assemblages. Album-makers freely experimented with visual techniques, from creative cropping, shredding, silhouetting, collage, and patterns, to witty annotation, literary fancy, and sequencing that borders on the cinematic. Indeed, many albums reflect the influence that cinema had during the creation of these early vernacular artworks.

To capture the experience of the albums in a museum setting, the exhibition is designed to facilitate a visually rich and tactile experience with the objects. Visitors enter a subtly lit gallery to find a constellation of spotlighted pedestals containing some of the most outstanding albums in the collection.   At a large "family table," visitors may sit and peruse facsimiles of some of the most engaging albums in the form of bound reproductions. The darkened space and the tactile experience enhance the mysterious allure of gazing into these eclectic serial narratives. On freestanding glass walls, the original albums are mounted on translucent stands, highlighting the beauty, variety and textures of the albums as book art--both the open spreads and the covers of the albums are visible. Also included in the exhibition are prime examples of the first Brownie cameras, developing tanks, and vintage advertisements that promoted developing processes and album making.

Special programming for the exhibition will include a round table discussion featuring co-curator Stephanie Snyder, director of the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery; co-curator Barbara Levine, independent curator and deputy director Contemporary Jewish Museum; and Matthew Stadler, novelist and literary editor of Nest Magazine. Stadler is also the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in creative writing and has written on the social history of photography.

A fully illustrated 200-page exhibition catalogue is being co-published by Reed College and Princeton Architectural Press. The catalogue, designed by Martin Venezky of Appetite Engineers, includes hundreds of illustrations of album spreads and photographs featured in the exhibition, and contains essays by the curators as well as the invited scholars Terry Toedtemeier, curator of photography at the Portland Art Museum, and Matthew Stadler. The book explores both the popular and social history of album making and discusses the astonishing coalescence of commercial and artistic forces that resulted in the grass-roots explosion of vernacular snapshot chronicles--a critical and overlooked aspect of the history of photography that is a distinct precedent to modern artistic practice.

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Reed College
Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, is an undergraduate institution of the liberal arts and sciences dedicated to sustaining the highest intellectual standards in the country. With an enrollment of about 1,360 students, Reed ranks third in the per capita number of undergraduates that go on to receive Ph.D.s in the United States and second in the number of Rhodes Scholars from a liberal arts college (31 since 1915).