Editors' pick

Little Pictures Big Lives: Snapshots from the Archives of American Art


Editorial Review

Snapshots reveal lives of artists big or not

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Aug. 12, 2011

The snapshot aesthetic is hot. There's a paradoxical charm to blurry and/or faded, overexposed, haphazardly composed photos with weird color. How else to explain the popularity of such low-fi photography trends as Hipstamatic, toy cameras and Polaroid nostalgia?

It's nothing new. The sometimes anonymous - and, more often than not, inept - amateur photographer has risen to the level of artist, as evidenced by such shows as 2007's "The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson" at National Gallery of Art and 2000's "Snapshot" at Baltimore's Contemporary Museum.

Add to that list another little sweetheart of a show: "Little Pictures Big Lives: Snapshots From the Archives of American Art."

Now on view in the Lawrence A. Fleisch-man Gallery of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (home to the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum), it's a peek into the everyday lives of artists, both famous and obscure.

There are many, many snapshots on view in the small show, culled from the albums and personal papers of artists, art dealers, art critics and their associates. Some are in envelopes and boxes, some are buried in photo albums, so it's impossible to give a precise number. But here are the things you'll find most often, in descending order:

1. Pictures of dogs.

2. Pictures taken at the beach, or near water.

3. Pictures of Andy Warhol.

Several pictures are of Warhol at the beach, taken on Fire Island in 1949 by Warhol's friend, painter Philip Pearlstein. The pop artist - and snapshot king, who turned the Polaroid into art - is wearing rolled-up khakis and a long-sleeved white turtleneck. If there were a picture of Warhol on the beach with a dog, we would be in snapshot heaven.

As it is, there's plenty to look at, even if many of the photos are smaller than a cocktail napkin. There's Jackson Pollock with his dogs, Gyp and Ahab. And here he is again, on the beach with his wife, the painter Lee Krasner.

Filmmaker, art collector and artist John Waters can be seen in another shot, taken at a party. His face is whitened by the flash, making him look like a ghost, while the rest of the picture is dark and underexposed. Most of him is out of the frame. But that's the look: random, fleeting and simultaneously banal and mysterious. It's the opposite of Henri Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment," yet kind of the same.

More often than not, however, these photos demystify great people whose names we know only through their great works in great museums: sculptor Alexander Archipenko, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Pablo Picasso. In snapshots, they're shirtless or in bathing suits, playing with pets, traveling, eating and drinking. Sometimes they're painting. More often, they're goofing off. Through snapshots, artmaking becomes just another thing to do. It's the great equalizer. That's why we want our picture taken when we run into celebrities. It doesn't just prove that we were there; it proves that they were, too.

"Little Pictures Big Lives" could just as easily have been called "Little Lives Big Pictures." In snapshots, famous people are somehow smaller than we imagine them. They're more our size. And the pictures themselves are less trivial than you'd think. They humanize and connect, and that itself is a kind of greatness, not to mention a kind of art.

The story behind the work

What is it about dogs?

"Little Pictures Big Lives" is full of them. Among the more than 50 dog pictures - including an entire spread in one of sculptor Alexander Archipenko's photo albums - are photos of Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso and other big-name artists with their canine companions. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever posted a snapshot of a beloved pet on Facebook. (Guilty as charged.)

For some working artists, it isn't a case of puppy love, though; it's part of their job.

Painter Honor Sharrer took hundreds of photographs that she used as visual references in her art-making. And she was more meticulous than most. The exhibition features several of her carefully labeled and sorted photo files. Among them are the fruits of one modeling session featuring an adorable little pooch in a variety of poses and settings, including atop a wooden table.

If you have the time, visit the museum's Luce Foundation Center on the third and fourth floors. There, you'll find Sharrer's five-part masterpiece "Tribute to the American Working People" from 1951, which includes a remarkably similar-looking dog.

-- Michael O'Sullivan