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Visual Vernaculars: An Ode to Everyday Images

Oct 19, 2023Oct 19, 2023


Robin Coste Lewis, Oluremi C. Onabanjo

Aug 4, 2023

Over the last year, MoMA’s Department of Photography has been home to the poet Robin Coste Lewis, who joined us as part of the inaugural cohort of Ford Foundation Scholars in Residence. During her residency, Coste Lewis expressed an interest in the Museum’s holdings of vernacular photography. Her recent book, To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness (2022), is a genre-bending exploration of poetry, photography, and human migration through a personal meditation on the photographic vernacular of her own family.

With the support of curatorial assistant Antoinette Roberts, Coste Lewis and I worked through the Museum’s expansive holdings of vernacular photographs—encountering elaborate albums, intimate portraits, touching snapshots, and even “trick pictures” that playfully anticipate the formal photographic interventions popular among the European avant-garde. MoMA’s collection gallery Visual Vernaculars unites photographs such as these alongside a selection of works inflected by the logic of the everyday. The artworks on view in this gallery inspired Coste Lewis to write a number of texts, which appear below. Speaking directly to the pictures on view, her poetic ruminations reveal the role of photography in the construction of a self-image, giving form to interrelated social identities, relationships, and communities.—Oluremi C. Onabanjo

Unidentified photographer. Untitled. c. 1900

Like life, the camera often cannot see what we wish it to see. But other times, a photograph can capture exactly that one fact, which—for years—we had no wish to uncover. We think we know or have seen something, but often we only see what we want to see, or don’t want to see. Photography is as much an art and technology of reproduction as it is a profound philosophy. It plays with perception. Like the eyes, the camera can sometimes toy with the truth. The plain, joyful, new accessibility of the camera to everyday people not only made general vernacular photography available, but it also made visual play accessible. Many scholars have observed how like poetry photography can be. True. But photography is such a rare and fluid thing—both technology and art form—that it can be and do many things. For example, it can pose philosophical questions. It can tell a visual joke. It can affirm that sometimes one feels as if one lost one’s head.

From left: Unidentified photographer. Untitled. Late 1840s; Unidentified photographer. Untitled. 1860s

The mother has been a recurring figure throughout human history. Goddesses, Divinities, the One Who Gives Birth to the entire universe. Images, objects, epics, and hymns that exalt the maternal saturate every aspect of artistic engagement regardless of location, continent, time period, or medium. With the advent of photography in the 19th century, this artistic phenomenon continued from the earliest of photographic technologies: daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. And because of the accessibility photography offered—and still offers—to everyday people, photography’s vernacular historical record is saturated with images of mothers of all kinds.

From left: Blanche Parker. The Story of My Life and Friends as Told by Snapshots from Fourteen On. 1916–23; Unidentified photographer. Untitled. c. 1945

Our family albums tell us who We are together. They are also the crumbs we leave on the forest ground for future generations to discover—in order to find their ways home. In photo albums, the Me transforms these images into the We. This was and remains the primary gift of photography’s democratizing force. Suddenly, with the advent of the camera, an entire flurry of images—cheap and reproducible—were at our fingertips. Beauty was no longer reserved solely for the walls of libraries and museums, whose collections had always been private, reserved for the upper classes. Now, with photography, absolutely anyone could walk into the frame. This is especially evident in photo albums. A photo album is a private museum and a self-published book all braided into one. And because they were preserved—for us—these albums are also now rare historical objects who tell us who We once were—and were not.

Photographs speak a kind of silent language. Likewise, words are often quiet pictures. Our alphabet is a series of shapes and forms. Our swift brains are rarely aware that when we read a sentence, a sentence like this one, we are seeing then interpreting numerous lines, arcs, semicircles, hooks. Language is a symbolic art in and of itself. If one adds meaning to these signs, the body shifts into gear, turning the mind into its own private gallery. Consider, for example, the word orange. A bright orb of fruit hanging from a tree, or the scent of its flowers, or merely a color so complete it cannot be ignored. Images of all kinds rise up into our mind whenever we see a word. Blue. Sometimes, artists play with our perception—that mysterious line between words and pictures.

Jonathan Monk. One Moment in Time (Kitchen). 2002

Visual Vernaculars is on view in MoMA’s fifth-floor collection galleries through August 2024.

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—Oluremi C. Onabanjo