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New Ways of Understanding Visual Culture: Pop Photographica

Some readers of this essay might not immediately recognize the name Daile Kaplan, whom I interviewed via email for this article. But those same readers might very likely recognize her face and voice: Kaplan has been for eighteen years the photography expert on PBS’ television program “Antiques Roadshow.” She is always precise and articulate, her presence professional but never intimidating. (For the sake of full disclosure, I must reveal that I have known Kaplan for over twenty years and have spent a considerable amount of time looking at and discussing with her the collection this interview discusses.)

Kaplan is Vice President and Director of the Photographs and Photobooks Department at Swann Auction Galleries, where she has been employed for twenty-five years. She has written three books and numerous essays; participates frequently on panels where fine art and vernacular photography are the topics; and she is a photographer, collector, and curator.

In this interview I discuss with Kaplan her personal collection “pop photographica” (a term that she coined encompassing 3-d objects at the intersection of photography and popular culture). The collection is comprised of a diverse and fascinating selection of decorative and functional objects, often hand-made, usually three dimensional, far removed from the type of work that has traditionally been considered part of the canon of photographic history.

EJO: Your collection offers a new way of interpreting photography. These wonderful objects, each of which integrates photographic images, seem to belong to a group of artworks championed by collectors who avoid labels or categories.

DK: I’m interested in the experience of photographic images in everyday life. [There is] a growing body of interdisciplinary curators and collectors (contemporary art, folk art, decorative arts, Americana, antiquarian rare books) examining materials that have historically been operating on the margins of the photographic canon. By this I’m referring to “vernacular photography” (19th– and 20th– century amateur snapshots, press photographs, commercial studio portraits, objects) in relation to fine art photography. Why? I guess you could say we’re all interested in making photography bigger.

There’s an awareness in the art world about how disciplines that once operated autonomously are now in dialog much of the time. Think of photography in relation to fashion, design, cinema, literature, folk art, or the decorative arts. There’s an authentic sense of excitement and discovery associated with the genre of vernacular photography where pictures are generally affordable and thought-provoking vs. fine art or iconic images associated with “the canon.”
I’m looking at ways to make photographic images more accessible, because they are so successful at enriching our lives and daily experiences. There’s a paradoxical nature to pop photographica insofar as the objects are often one-of-a-kind but the personal references are universal and familiar.

EJO: I’m glad that you mentioned the canon. I’m most familiar with that term and its implications through the writings of certain feminist and LGBTQ scholars who began to question in the 1970s where were the works of the “other” in the material being taught in most liberal arts programs. Yet you wouldn’t know this from the standard histories of photography. (I’m thinking of numerous editions of Beaumont Newhall’s significant book, The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present.)

DK: From the beginning photography was a special experience. The daguerreotype was housed in a leather miniature-book-like case that was held in one’s hand. Almost immediately it was applied to fancy perfume bottles, gentlemen’s canes, fountain pens and other luxury good. As an industry, photograph was always something of an equal opportunity employer. In the 19th-century, daguerreotype studios operated by women were fairly common. And, with the introduction of Stieglitz’s fine art circle in the early twentieth century, artworks by women photographers were displayed and reproduced alongside those by their male counterparts.

EJO: You’ve been describing what I would call “high” or “fine art” photography. But belt-buckles, purses, shirts, campaign pins, glass paperweights, sewing kits, biscuit tins, jewelry—the list of disparate items that find home in your collection is staggering. You celebrate the opposite. What comes to mind is how Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp,” her 1964 essay, argues for a mixture of the high with the low, the work of the insider with the work of the outsider, and celebrates objects that might seem beyond the arena of scholarly discussion. Almost anarchic I think.

DK: How about controversial? In the 1990s when I first started collection, my colleagues thought my tastes a bit odd. But now that we think of photography as part of visual culture, these objects have come to be embraced and exhibited by blue-chip institutions and private collectors.

EJO: Your collection is catholic, one might say, in how it ranges from the hand-made object to what are factory made or mechanically produced objects, for example, fabrics printed with reproductions of scenes of New York City or dinner-ware with portraits or specific scenes.

DK: The key word is “hybrid,.” which underscores a sense of mystery inherent to many of articles. After all, we can only guess the backstory when the photographer and subject are uncredited. The collection includes a panorama of articles, from elegant 14K earrings with daguerreotype portraits to colorful porcelain objects with transfer images of handsome men to freestanding photographic cut outs with cute images of kids to Cindy Sherman’s Limoges dinner service in which she appears as Madame de Pompadour.

EJO: I’d like to discuss several specific objects in your collection towards which I have always gravitated. The first one is an image by Ansel Adams on the unlikely surface of a Hills Bros. coffee can produced in 1969. It features his photograph, “Winter Morning, Yosemite Valley.” I can’t think of an object more unlikely to be displayed in a museum where framed images, usually mounted on white walls, dominate. How do ephemeral and disposable objects in your collection address those fine art objects sanctioned by cultural institutions?

DK: Photography has always been a chameleon-like form of expression in which context is all-defining. The relationship of photography to popular expressions is reflected in fashion magazines that featured images by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn as well as this fun, quotidian object by Adams. You may ask why Adams agreed to have one of his pictures featured on a coffee can. He was a populist who recognized an opportunity. He drew attention to photography (in a consumer setting) and also to Yosemite National Park, a landscape at risk more than 50 years ago.

In the early 1960s, before a commercial market for fine art and documentary photographs was introduced in NY and San Francisco, photography was considered an illegitimate art form. Even serious artists like Adams were limited in the potential audience for their works.

EJO: Adams’ image on the three-pound coffee tin resembles the photographs he had printed on menu cards and souvenir sheets at Yosemite in the 1930s; they seem to be part of his larger ambition to make the public aware of photography. An artist in his own right, he employed photographs to convey the necessity of conserving and preserving the natural environment.

DK: The imagination, creativity and commercial opportunities utilized by photographers then help us understand today the ways in which pictures were assimilated into popular culture. Adams and mid-20th century photographers like Duane Michals, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and William Klein, whose pictures adorn numerous vinyl album covers from the 1970s, changed the way the public viewed photography. The result is the ubiquity of photographs and rise of visual culture.

CAROLINE & ED: Since this object is not illustrated, I talk about something that is

EJO: Can we talk about the Victorian sewing box within the framework of your collection?

DK: This functional item is one of the first major pieces I acquired. The beautifully crafted wooden box reflects how photography studios often worked with local craftsmen and artisans. When open the top lid reveals daguerreotypes and tinypes of family members, who are set against the stunning marquetry and artisanal quality of the object. As someone (a woman) engaged in a quotidian task–sewing or mending–she connected with her loved ones via the portraits.

The notion that photography was something of an interdisciplinary art form and crossed over into the decorative arts in the 1860s demonstrates how the boundaries between the fine and applied arts were always a bit fuzzy. In other words, for the consumer and popular tastes, the idea wasn’t to display photographs on the wall but to integrate them into everyday life. This “off-the-wall” sensibility associated with pop photographica (and, yes, I mean that literally and figuratively) keys in to its emergence and popularity

EJO: I’d like to finish this interview by discussing one of the most touching or moving or, perhaps beautiful items in the collection. I could have chosen pillow cases that highlight cyanotype images of the maker’s life (DELETE: or a sewing kit with images of loved ones that are revealed when it is opened) or the amazing trunk used by an African-American vaudeville performer. I’m referring to what I hesitate to call an example of “low art.” It is the stuffed doll of a young African-American girl/baby with a haunting photographic portrait applied to it. An object like this one strikes me immediately as something that contains a quality one cannot see but can “feel.” It’s fleeting, marked by what I am going to call love.

DK: Yes yes yes…this is a poignant object that probably depicts a child who has passed on. The doll possesses a soulfulness that seems to animate it. The expression on the child’s face is so wistful and wise beyond her years. If you saw a framed photograph of her face on the wall, you would certainly stop and look. But as a tangible object the rag doll is so much more powerful an experience because we touch and cradle it. The object provided an emotional connection to her for family members and friends. That it has survived and has the power to allow viewers today to connect is kind of incredible.

EJO: Discussing the precious, unique, hand-made object moves us into territory which Walter Benjamin analyzes in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Should we move on to topics that he introduces?

DK: Benjamin was especially interested in integrating mass and consumer culture into modernist discourse. He articulated a new way of seeing in which a photographic images were essential. The relationship of pop photographica to popular and mass culture is a key element in addressing the origins and manifestations of these objects. In the focus to gain approval for photography as a fine art form, artifacts that fell outside the canon were unilaterally dismissed and ridiculed for decades. Today such objects are being reexamined by curators as important ways to better understand the role of images in everyday live.

* This email interview with Daile Kaplan was conducted on several occasions, Sept. 4, Oct. 1, and Oct. 16, 2016. For more information please visit her website: www.popphotographica.com She will be opening the Warehouse Museum of Pop Photographica in the spring of 2017.