Little Pictures, Big Lives: Snapshots Of American Artists : The Picture Show A Smithsonian exhibition celebrates the "golden era of snapshots." Many of the people in the photos happen to be some of this country's greatest artists
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Little Pictures, Big Lives: Snapshots Of American Artists

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Little Pictures, Big Lives: Snapshots Of American Artists

Little Pictures, Big Lives: Snapshots Of American Artists

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

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.

STAMBERG: 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.

STAMBERG: Exactly.

STAMBERG: He's not holding a soup can.

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

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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.

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

STAMBERG: 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.

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

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

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

STAMBERG: 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.

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

STAMBERG: 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: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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

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