MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Our next story focuses on the lessons you can learn from photographs. You have a little more than a month left to see an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art that explores the intimate, everyday moments in the lives of some this country's greatest artists. NPR special correspondent and regular "Metro Connection" contributor, Susan Stamberg, introduces us to "Little Pictures, Big Lives: Snapshots from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art."
MS. 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
He's lying on the sand with his head on a towel and he's kind of sticking in the side of the corner of the picture. And in real snapshot style, it's all askew and it seems like he's 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.
That's absolutely right, isn't it? Right? He's not full of all that artifice. He's not wearing the white wig. He's not holding a soup can.
Correct. He's just lying on the beach and somebody grabbed the camera and took his picture.
It's Andy Warhol before he became Andy Warhol. In the 1940s, a student at Carnegie Mellon, Warhol and pals on the beach, in the dorm, the cafeteria, unguarded moments, quick pictures of people having fun.
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 makes them interesting as material objects. They're kind of -- are decorated right from the get-go and say, look at me.
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's file. Merry thinks the snaps are a form of biography, pieces of visual culture with a unique kind of authenticity.
These more causal, spontaneous, informal looks at everyday life give people a picture of what's real about you.
These days, we take digital pictures at the blink of an Iphone. In the days of film, there was a bit more to it.
You took the pictures, you went to the drugstore, you dropped them off, three days later, you got the prints back.
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 pictures in white ink on the black album paper or, Merry Foresta says, the snapshots multiplied in shoeboxes in the closet.
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.
The archives exhibition is 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.
Paul Pollock, you don't look at a man handing daisies to a woman and think about him learning over enormous canvases dripping paint.
Well, the wonderful thing about looking at snapshots of artists is that it raises the stakes a little bit. The lovely picture of a man holding a bunch of daisies to his love is a sweet picture, but a sweet picture. When you know that that's Jackson Pollock holding daisies over to Lee Krasner, it becomes a different picture. It becomes something different.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
You can see shots of Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and other artists featured in "Little Pictures, Big Lives" on our website, metroconnection.org.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.