in the vernacular

In Inspiration
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Vernacular photography 
The creation of photographs that take everyday life and common things as subjects.

A member of the Barnes family and fellow railroad workers
A man who loves his car

Recently I read a New York Times article about an exhibit by The Walther Collection entitled Scrapbook Love Story: Memory and the Vernacular Photo Album, and wished I could have taken a quick trip to New York to see it before it closed at the end of January. I was sorry to miss, it, but it got me thinking about my own interest in vernacular photography, both as an observer and a collector.

Me in the middle, with my twin sisters, 1958
Me and my brother Tom on the beach in Carmel, California

Since I was a very little girl I have been intrigued by the everyday photograph, particularly of people. I would pore over our family photo albums, and ask to see our family slides again and again, until my siblings and even my parents groaned aloud. I was fascinated with the photographs of people displayed at friends’ houses, especially people I did not know. I would silently invent lives and stories for these people that I could revisit later, when I was alone and could let my imagination soar.

As an adult I’ve become the keeper of a number of what could be called vernacular photo collections. I have photo albums from my grandmother, great uncle, and my parents. I have photographs of life on a family ranch in Texas from the turn of the century. There is my great-grandmother’s guest book filled with photos and poems and keepsakes. There are hundreds of photos of family, friends, my children, pets, vacations, parties, and everyday life.

My great uncle and friends swimming in Vermont
My great uncle’s future wife, wearing knickers and a tie, which horrified my great grandmother
My husband as a little boy

But in addition to these photographs from my own family, I have also acquired a number of photographs of people completely unrelated to me. These vernacular photographs thrill me as much as those friends’ photographs thrilled me as a child. I am particularly drawn to the ones from the 19th and early- to mid-20th century, since they tell stories that I wasn’t alive to witness.

There are photographs of many generations of our friend Jack Jackson’s family, which tell the story of life in the Midwest.

The bowl haircut was popular that year
Friends on a nature walk
A girl and her doll carriage
A formal farm family portrait
A great double exposure of Jack’s grandparents and their car

I also acquired a photo album a few years ago of many generations of a family from New Bedford, Massachusetts. I purchased a box of items in an auction, and the album just happened to be in it. I was going to get rid of it, but I can’t seem to part with it.

Holding on
“Say, it’s only a paper moon…”

Vernacular photography’s everyday forms have been a source of inspiration for many photographers, both the amateur and professional. The Art Institute of Chicago hosted an exhibit in 2010 with images by photographers Walker Evans, Andy Warhol, Lee Friedlander, Cindy Sherman, Martin Parr, Nikki S. Lee, and others who were inspired by vernacular photography. “These images challenge us to reevaluate the impact, value, and status of the photographs we encounter in our daily lives. These images persuade us to consider the ways in which photographs function as significant bearers of complex meaning, rather than mere descriptions or reflections of the world, whether they grace the walls of a museum, the pages of a magazine, the files in a cabinet, or a living room mantel.”

I’ll leave you with two of my favorite vernacular photographs. Animals always make a great subject for a photo, especially when you can sense the pride or humor of the photographer who took them.

I’ll bet you have your own collections of vernacular photographs. The next time you have a quiet afternoon, why not dig them out and revisit them? I think you’ll enjoy reliving those days, or creating your own stories of the lives lived within them.

See you soon. –lucy


  1. Wow, Lucy, this is incredible! LOVE this so much. What a window into the past. Your husband as a little boy – so sweet 🙂 Your great aunt – super cool 🙂 I bet your family appreciates this role you’ve taken on. More reason to print more photographs! Thanks for sharing with us!

  2. These are so wonderful Lucy! I looked hard at each one, expecting to see my family in some of them. Thank you for sharing these.

  3. Just great, the last two made me smile so much.

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