The art experience you may already be practicing without even knowing it


Vernacular photography from Robert Frank, Covered Car, Long Beach, California, silver print, 1955–56, printed 1971. (Image courtesy of Swann Galleries)

If you’ve ever collected postcards on vacation, preserved an ancestor’s family photo album or purchased photography books for your coffee table, you may have been practicing the art of vernacular photography without even realizing it.

On Sunday, September 25, Deborah Rogal, director of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries and frequent appraiser on Antiques Roadshow will present “Moons, Mugshots, and Amateurs: Collecting Vernacular Photography” at North Salem’s Ruth Keeler Memorial Library. The North Salem Historical Society is a co-sponsor of the event.

Image courtesy of Deborah Rogal

“Vernacular photography is a really broad category that excludes what we might consider fine art photography,” Rogal said. “Loosely and broadly defined, it’s pictures by lesser known or amateur makers, including press, itinerant, hobbyist, commercial work, travel or souvenir pictures or family albums.”

For Rogal, vernacular photography is appealing for its accessibility. “It’s a medium that impacts everyone’s everyday lives and informs the way we see the world,” she said. “I love that photography is something we see in museums–a rarified, institutional context–and is also something we do every day and have a personal relationship with.”

Vernacular photography documenting the construction of a trestle bridge in southern France. (Image courtesy of Swann Galleries)

At the Keeler Library, Rogal will talk about how the field of vernacular photography has developed and her approach to the category through her work at Swann Galleries. “I hope to offer a new way of thinking about photography in general and open up some ideas and questions, such as photography’s place in the market and how we can reconsider the way photography is thought about by the everyday person,” Rogal said.

Somewhat unique to vernacular photography is the way in which it is sourced. “The most exciting material that’s come to us has really, truly been fresh to market, out of an estate or home, or things that have been inherited” Rogal said. “I think that’s the important, appealing thing about collecting some of this work–the sense of discovering something when you find it at auction, store or antique fair.” That experience of discovery, Rogal said, is distinct from the feeling of buying fine art work by well-known artists. “[Vernacular photography] is more about the sense of discovering an image or series of images that speak to you, and adding to a collection,” she said.

And for collectors, the collecting is very personal. “For people who have put together large collections of vernacular photography, their personality and perspective really comes through when you consider their collection as a whole,” Rogal said. “The photography and the collector go hand-in-hand.”

While individual tastes differ, there are trends in the field. The current market for vernacular photography is much more open to a more inclusive, holistic approach, Rogal said, pointing to “areas that have been overlooked in the past–work by women and/or people of color–and makers who have not been shown by institutions or considered by scholars.”

Whether you’re new to collecting photography or are an experienced collector, Rogal is confident that her session will offer something for everyone. “The beauty of the medium is that it offers so much,” she said. “Personally, I’ve always loved social documentary photography. But it’s great that someone can give a completely different answer that’s completely valid.”

Moons, Mugshots, and Amateurs: Collecting Vernacular Photography will take place Sunday, September 25 from 4:00-5:00 p.m. at the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library

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