This week is your last chance to see Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing the American Photo Album, a narrowly focused historical survey of photo albums at the turn of the century curated by Reed College's Stephanie Snyder and Bay Area collector Barbara Levine.
Although Reed College's Cooley Gallery is modest in size, outstanding installation techniques, liberal use of dark blue paint and rich accompanying texts lend the exhibition the heavy, authoritative presence of a museum. On display are 70 American photo albums created between 1898 and 1935, many assembled by anonymous creators. Although it is tempting to get caught up in nostalgia and the voyeuristic attraction of milling through the personal artifacts of strangers, curators Snyder and Levine go to great lengths to present these albums within a more thorough context, citing not only socio-economic factors and historical events that are revealed through these albums, but also cultural, aesthetic and technological influences.
The exhibition may be historically motivated, but it remains quite relevant to contemporary trends in self-documentation. While Kodak's Brownie camera and other portable cameras gave ordinary Americans a cheap and accessible way to document their own lives at the turn of the 20th century, digital cameras have revolutionized the way in which we document ourselves at the turn of the 21st century. While early album makers relied on a few crude image altering techniques as well as inventive ways to clip and collage their photos, image editing software has given the home user an entirely new set of tools to alter images according to their own aesthetic tastes. Blogs, virtual photo albums and other web-based technologies have renewed an interest in documenting the minutiae of daily life. Additionally, the scrapbooking industry, which rose exponentially in the late 1990s (I've seen it cited as being several billion dollar industry), attests to a concurrent growth in the creation of traditional albums, albeit under the guise of a well-marketed hobby. Snapshot Chronicles provides a look back at the origins of this marriage between technological, commercial and aesthetic forces in shaping the ways we document ourselves.
Snapshot Chronicles runs through July 11 at the Cooley Art Gallery, Reed College. The show will travel nationally throughout 2006-2008.
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