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Whether you're vacationing or staycationing this summer, chances are you'll take some photos. Smartphones make picture-taking easier and more popular than ever. In earlier years, of course, photography was a much bigger deal. Just getting a picture was a big deal.

At the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, an exhibition called "Little Pictures, Big Lives" shows snapshots from the 1920s through the '60s, intimate moments in the lives of some of this country's greatest artists.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg took a look.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Poking through the archive folders, in there with the letters, diaries, documents, curator Merry Foresta came upon a snapshot of some college kids on the beach: three pretty girls in bathing suits. And over on the left side, inspecting the sand, a guy in a long-sleeved turtleneck and dark-rimmed glasses.

Ms. MERRY FORESTA (Curator, Smithsonian Institution): He's lying on the sand, with his head on a towel, and he's kind of sticking in the side, the corner of the picture. And in real snapshot style, it's all askew, and it seems like he is sliding off the corner of the picture. And it just seems to be an artist that we never have gotten a really good look at in repose. And here he is.

STAMBERG: That's absolutely right, isn't it? He's not full of all that artifice. He's not wearing the white wig.

Ms. FORESTA: Exactly.

STAMBERG: He's not holding a soup can.

Ms. FORESTA: Correct. He's just lying on the beach, and somebody grabbed the camera and took his picture.

(Soundbite of camera click)

STAMBERG: It's Andy Warhol before he became Andy Warhol, in the 1940s, a student at Carnegie Melon. Warhol and pals on the beach, in the dorm, the cafeteria. Unguarded moments, quick pictures of people having fun.

Ms. FORESTA: I love them because they're real snapshots in the golden era of snapshot style. They are little, square pictures. They've got the wonderful decaled edges on them, which make them interesting as material objects. They kind of are decorated right from the get go and say, look at me.

STAMBERG: Merry Foresta puts the golden era of snapshots from the 1920s through '60s, when everybody bought cameras and began to make black-and-white - later color - memories. The Archives of American Art has thousands of snapshots, usually undated, often by anonymous photographers who just shot Alexander Calder, Ansel Adams, Picasso. That one turned up in surrealist painter William Baziotes' file.

Merry thinks the snaps are a form of biography, pieces of visual culture with a unique kind of authenticity.

Ms. FORESTA: These more casual, spontaneous, informal looks at everyday life give people a picture of what's real about you.

STAMBERG: These days, we take digital pictures at the blink of an iPhone. In the days of film, there was a bit more to it.

Ms. FORESTA: You took the pictures. You went to the drugstore. You dropped them off. Three days later, you got the prints back.

STAMBERG: In those days, it was as if you couldn't really be a family unless you had photographs of the family. Organized people, usually moms, mounted them in albums. My mother wrote identifications under every picture in white ink on the black album paper.

Or, Merry Foresta says, the snapshots multiplied in shoeboxes in the closet.

Ms. FORESTA: I can remember that it was always the case that if an older relative came, you took down the big box of all these loose snapshots, and you went through them and you remembered. And it was a delightful experience because you were adding history as you went along. You added those dates. You added some names. You got to see your mother when she was 15 years old. You got to see your father when he went off to the Navy.

STAMBERG: The archives exhibition - it's at the Smithsonian Museum's National Portrait Gallery - has snapshots of mothers or fathers or friends who were part of the lives of men and women who would become famous for making art, major 20th century artists.

For Pollack, you don't look at a man handing daises to a woman and think about him leaning over enormous canvases, dripping paint.

Ms. FORESTA: Well, the wonderful thing about looking at snapshots of artists is that it raises the stakes a little bit. And a lovely picture of a man handing a bunch of daises to his love is a sweet picture, but a sweet picture. When you know that that's Jackson Pollack holding daises over to Lee Krasner, it becomes a different picture. It becomes something different.

STAMBERG: Theirs was a stormy relationship, for all kinds of reasons. But this daisy snapshot preserves the undated smiles of a summer day in East Hampton.

Ms. FORESTA: And so it really does feel like we're learning something new about these people that we thought we knew. And that's what makes so many of these pictures so special.

STAMBERG: Today, with cameras at the tips of our fingers, there are more photographs than we can keep track of - billions of them made just in this year.

Merry Foresta says whether we are artists or grandparents or recent graduates, we're all still gathering pieces of evidence.

Ms. FORESTA: It's just slightly different. Now, we manage to carry our shoebox of pictures around with us all the time. It's not just one snapshot that we slide into our wallet. It's a whole smartphone of images that we carry around with us all the time. And whether you're showing off your children or your grandchildren or my last vacation, or here are the 15 pictures I loved seeing at the museum - whatever it is, you carry it around with you.

STAMBERG: "Little Pictures, Big Lives: Snapshots from the Archives of American Art" is on view in Washington until early October, some 200 small, sometimes shiny pieces of paper, shot from the hip or the heart.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you can see some of the snapshots at npr.org.

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