“An Anonymous Art: American Snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Gift,” Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

“An Anonymous Art:  American Snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Gift” is a glimpse at the enduring currency that photographic images have across time, and our everlasting interest in documenting ourselves, friends and family, and the world around us. This group was a gift to the museum from New York collector Peter J. Cohen, who has a collection of about 35,000 found photographs, parts of which have been exhibited at museums around the country.  The Cohen images range from the 1910s to the 1990s.

The photos, which are mostly quite small, are organized by years and by subject matter and are mounted two to eight in a single frame.  Commonplace groupings include People and Cars; On the Road; In the Corn; Baseball; Family Album; Me; Big Feet, Climbing; Guns and Gunplay, It’s a Dangerous World, and so on.

The diminutive snapshots from this show look like photos from my family’s old albums.  With grandparents born in 1899, our fragile images are full of men, women and children from the late 1910s forward.  The Cohen photographs, some with the quirky scalloped edges of early photos, feel so familiar that I half expected to see my bathing-costumed, teenaged grandmother wading in the Florida surf.

As the show’s brochure indicates, by 1888, a Kodak camera came preloaded with film that anyone could simply shoot and then mail the camera to the Eastman factory for printing.  By the 19th century’s end, 1.5 million hand cameras were in use across the country, making photography widely available to an interested citizenry.  Continuing innovations made amateur photography easier and more accessible.

There’s nothing fantastical or extraordinary about these photographs, except to say that they are all extraordinary because these people lived, they were daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, friends, brothers, sisters.  They took photos of each other standing in a cornfield, or by their cars, or fishing. The show is both a celebration of the act of living, “we were here,” and a poignant reminder that our time is short and our lives are meaningful, especially to whoever stood behind that camera and decided to memorialize someone with a photograph.

Especially poignant are the images captioned “Me,” depicting both adults and children. We may imagine a grown woman writing “me” at the bottom of her childhood photograph as a reminder that she was once a small, vulnerable girl.  In Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, French theoretician Roland Barthes writes, “In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder … over a catastrophe which has already occurred.  Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.””

And yet, despite Barthes’ melancholy, or our own sadness over images of loved ones who have died, each photograph exclaims and reclaims existence — that we have been here.  The snapshot embodies an emotion that existed at the time as an agreement between the photographer and the photographed, and that experience bridges time’s distance. And while that may sound simplistic, it is part of the deeper social meaning of the photographic image as a souvenir of experience—a small, visual (auto)biography.

Barthes goes on to discuss his mother’s photograph, writing, “…[the] photograph was indeed essential, it achieved for me, utopically, the impossible science of the unique being.”  The image of his mother as a child evinced for Barthes his mother’s true nature — kindness. Similarly, these anonymous photos perhaps reveal the essence of the subjects depicted … daredevil brothers, goofy friends and sisters, sedate parents, and so on.

Such is the power of a photograph to move us, perhaps even in our image-saturated culture where dinner, desserts, and “selfies” are incessantly posted to the Internet.  These old and faded images of people doing something and often doing nothing speak to a pictorial continuum.

I wonder if anyone coming of age in these digital times will find these images of any interest or importance, because it’s not a show about photographic processes, really, but more a show of cultural and familial practice.  This collection of amateur photos, by its nature nostalgic, shows a time when people actually wrote on their photographs things like “The Kid Sister-1938,” and put photos in paper albums, or carried them in their wallets because that’s what they did.

What currency do images stored on a disposable phone have today?  What percentages of people actually print out those photos as keepsakes, reminders of good times and endearing family and friends?  Despite not knowing the people in these intimate snapshots, we are drawn toward these illusive shadows that have shown us ways of dressing, relaxing, posing, and playing that may now seem quaint, but that simultaneously show us how different, and yet the same we are throughout time.

And maybe we wonder if the images from our current lives will one day be scrutinized on display in another institution such as this.  Could it be that anyone will ever find digital images of someone’s dinner interesting?  I hope not.

 “An Anonymous Art: American Snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Gift” continues at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., through September 4. Hours are 10 a.m.to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. For more information, 816.751.1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.

Dana Self

Dana Self is an arts writer who was a contemporary art curator for more than 13 years at museums in Kansas, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Missouri, including Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. She has organized roughly 100 exhibitions of emerging and midcareer artists. She is also marketing director for UMKC Conservatory.

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