Arts & Entertainment

Northern Virginia Art Beat

 'The Art of the American Snapshot 1888-1978; From the collection of Robert E. Jackson'

Through December 31, at the National Gallery of Art (Fourth and Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.). Museum Hours: Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. The Gallery is closed on December 25.

Occasionally one hears of an artist surreptitiously hanging some of their work in a major museum. Hoi polloi are welcome to come view the offerings shown, but exhibiting art by the same hoi polloi is strictly verboten. Such venues are notoriously devoted to the art of the well established and the thoroughly dead … or at least those nearly so. Never in my recollection, or the recollection of several others, has a show comprised entirely of unknown origins ever appeared in a major art museum in Washington. Well here it is: Art of the American Snapshot. Guards! GUARDS!!!

This is one of the most refreshing concepts to ever come along. After years of hunting through snapshots at flea markets, eBay, estate sales and any other place he could dig up interesting photos, snapshot collector Robert E. Jackson has offered up a small portion of his horde for public viewing.

Seeing how virtually all amateur photography is intended to be viewed only by those close to the photographer, we can safely say this was something completely unintended by the photographers or their subjects. Imagine being caught in hair curlers by an in-house roving rogue photographer. Now imagine the resulting image displayed on a museum wall for all the world to see. It's just this sort of thing that makes “American Snapshot” such a great show.

There are definite themes here — kids being goofy, celebration cakes, double exposures, light flares and other such oddball, one-time photographic “mistakes” which often as not make a fairly mundane photo rather interesting. The shots include photographers attempting to be arty by toying with perspective and differences of scale due to distance. Think of the ubiquitous image of a tourist “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa and you've got the general idea.

The old dictum “shoot with the sun at your back” is great for filling facial contours so eyes can be seen in the photos. It's also great for blinding the subjects and making them squint, and then there is that bit about watching where your shadow falls. Lots of shadow play photos here as well.

Men, we assume, make great sport of hunting the woman of the house and catching her unaware. A little of that goes a long way and eventually the hunted learns to hide — behind crossed arms, a magazine, anything that can provide reasonable cover before the flash bulb pops. After a while you start to feel sorry for the girls, then you catch one giving as good as she gets with a tongue stuck out.

Probably the most riotous image is the grandmotherly lady with her birthday cake sporting one large candle. One can imagine the jibe — “We didn't want to burn the house down so we just put one big candle on it” — to which she gives the photographer the finger. Ironically, her finger is about the same size as the candle, and her red fingernail polish on a pointed nail looks fairly flame-like. The similarity gives us the connection between the candle and the response. Art of the happy accident.

Which brings up the notion of context. Context changes everything, and we have zero real context for any of these photos. Other than processing lab date stamps, and owners' notations in the margins or on the back of the photos, we know nothing.

There is a school of thought that says “the art should speak for itself.” Today artists are all but required to supply artist statements, many of which are nothing short of empty art babble. The lack of such here makes each and every image an opportunity for pure discovery, in which all we know is what the image is telling us. Was the photographer trying to do this? Is this literally a “one-shot-wonder,” or did they have talent that went beyond this one image? Questions that will forever remain unanswered.

One of my favorites here is probably a late 1940s or early '50s image titled “So Happy.” A smiling woman goes for a top-down ride in the back seat of a convertible. Her face is out of focus, no doubt due to the fairly limited focusing capacity of most amateur cameras of the day. On the other side of the frame, in the distance, is a car following behind. You can sense the speed of the car, the wind in her face, the utter feeling of joy in being alive in the moment the way that top-down motoring can bring. It's a wonderful image.


18th Annual Pottery Studio Show

The work of Susan Fox Hirschmann is on display Saturday and Sunday, Dec 1-2, from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

The gallery is located at 4810 Tabard Pl., Annandale, Va. For more information, call 703-978-1480.


Artist Opportunities
Crystal City Planes
Pandas, Donkeys, Elephants, Trains … the individually painted theme statues on city sidewalks is wearing a little thin about now. The original concept was entertaining, but applying painted decorations to forms that don't interrelate in any significant way gets to be silly fairly quickly. By now it's been done, done again and done some more.

The Crystal City version of this notion offers up two designs (25 of each), a jet fighter and a vintage over-wing monoplane. This one departs from the others by inviting artists to alter the basic structure if they want to. A few idea sheets are provided, one showing the jet transformed into a flying dragon. Let your imagination run wild and get your concepts in by Dec 3, the postmark deadline for artist proposals. Contracted artists will receive a $1,500 honorarium to bring their ideas to fruition.

The resulting works will then be displayed around Crystal City beginning April 2008. Contact Robert Mandle at 703-412-9435, or download 17-page information and forms packet at