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Contemporary Vernacular: Contemporary Responses to Family and Found Photographs
Photographic Resource Center at Boston University
November 5-January 23, 2005

This Introduction as well as the Artists Statements represent the wall text from the PRC's exhibition.

Contemporary Vernacular features artists who allude to or incorporate vernacular, or “everyday,” images and themes into their work. The domestic emerges as the key theme in the exhibition, in terms of using and referencing family imagery as well as imitating and critiquing home display and production. Vintage vernacular creations have been cited as presaging the post-modern impulse to mix genres, disciplines, and media. Correspondingly, these artworks have one foot in the 19th century and another in the 21st century.

When the Boston University Art Gallery began planning an exhibition and conference on vernacular photography, I was excited by the possibility of organizing a complementary offering across the avenue. Contemporary Vernacular is an opportunity to highlight what has emerged as an important popular topic and trend within contemporary artistic practice and popular culture. Besides the gallery offerings on the BU campus—In the Vernacular: Everyday Photographs from the Rodger Kingston Collection and Keepsake and Found Polaroids—there at least two other vernacular exhibitions showing concurrently, with more certainly to come. Indeed, the current atmosphere seems saturated with nostalgia for objects and times past along with a good dose of voyeurism.

Initially applied to dialect and speech, the vernacular emerged as a scholarly idea within architectural history, referring generally to a style native to a certain region as well as a structure with utilitarian concerns. Although vernacular photography accounts for the vast majority of photographic production, this academic and interdisciplinary genre is relatively young. Although this category can encompass a wide variety of photographic uses and types—from yearbook pictures to travel souvenirs—it often refers to images and objects outside of the fine art canon and produced or consumed in the home.

About half of the pieces in this exhibition can be considered self-works referencing the artists’ own history. These autobiographies do not distance viewers. On the contrary, they are broad enough in addressing the human condition for viewers to see “us” in “them.” The remaining works take as their inspiration anonymous photographs of people, even made-up families, upon which the artist imparts his or her own hand. Many of the works incorporate handicraft or are sculpturally based—important elements in the vernacular—while others reference album, scrapbook, and journal pages. The altered substrate also figures in many pieces, allowing artists a tabula rasa to present and re-present alternative views instead of what is usually marked and documented.

Within the gallery walls, I hope to create a pastiche of personal and artistic histories, ideas, and themes centering on vernacular photography. Through juxtaposition and placement in the gallery, relationships will ensue between the artworks, much like portraits and places separated by time and place can come together in the space of an album. Photographs are often asked to remember events for us, but once divorced from their attendant associations they invite questions, inspire imagination, and ask for conclusion. The gallery visitors to this exhibition are asked, similar to consuming “other people’s pictures,” to do the rest.

Today, the giants in the consumer photo industry seem to have acquiesced to the digital gods, and now fear (or promote?) the loss of the analog object altogether. In light of this, critics posit a new category for vernacular photography, the electronic picture file. Like many others, hundreds, if not thousands, of digital photos lie hidden away in my hard drive. Occasionally, I peruse them, but for the most part they remain unused and unseen, seemingly spent of their usefulness in the act of taking them. Perhaps the artists in this exhibition can serve as our guide in considering a new kind vernacular as well as a hybrid photographic genre. More importantly, they can encourage us to revisit and celebrate our own vernacular photographs.

Leslie K. Brown
PRC Curator

We invite you to visit the PRC’s Aaron Siskind library for a special display devoted to publications on vernacular photography, including selections by BUAG’s conference panelists.