Although the advent of social media opened the floodgates on the taking and sharing of photographs of ourselves and others, people have been posing for the camera since photography’s invention. Early cameras required long exposure times, and for subjects to appear in focus they had to remain still for extended periods. By the late nineteenth century, photographic technology had improved: film became more light-sensitive and cameras became easier to use. Beginning in 1888, Kodak’s advertisements for its new, handheld cameras promised: “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.” With photography accessible to a much broader audience, not only could anyone take a picture, but the pictures they took could capture people in candid moments of daily life. Such flexibility allowed photographers to challenge viewers’ assumptions about what is posed and what is unposed.
To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.
One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.
An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.
Images by amateur photographers of everyday life and subjects, commonly in the form of snapshots. The term is often used to distinguish everyday photography from fine art photography.
The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.
The way a figure is positioned.
A representation of a particular individual.
A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.
The action of exposing a photographic film to light or other radiation.
Questions & Activities
Explore Vernacular Photos
Research. The Peter J. Cohen collection at MoMA comprises several hundred vernacular photographs spanning the 20th century, offering a glimpse into the history of amateur photography.
Browse images from the Cohen collection at MoMA. Select three images of people: one that seems posed, one that seems unposed, and one you are not entirely sure about.
Reflect. For each of the three photographs write a response explaining your determination, addressing the following: Why do you think people were posed? Who do you think directed the posing—the people portrayed or the photographer? Why do you think the people are unposed? Why did the photographer decide to choose to photograph people candidly? What in the picture made you unsure about whether or not the people were posing?
You’re on Candid Camera!
Explore. Think about moments in your own life when you posed for a photograph and other times when you were photographed unposed. Find a few examples of each, either on Facebook or in a family album, and consider what the circumstances were.
Reflect. How are the images similar? How are they different? Summarize your thoughts in a brief (1-3 paragraph essay) below.
What was it like posing for an early photographic portrait? Recreate the experience by timing yourself sitting completely still for one minute. Have someone photograph you at the end of that time.
Reflect. Look at the photograph. What does your facial expression and body language convey? How did it feel to be that still for that long?
Before he became a photographer, Walker Evans wanted to be a writer. Many of his photographs are rich with narrative potential.
Explore. Pick one image from the Subway Portrait series and write a short story in which you imagine the inner life of the person depicted. Where might this person be traveling to or from? What do they do for work? What is their home life like? What are they thinking about at the moment the photograph was taken?
Write. Craft a brief, one-page narrative about your chosen subway rider.
Read this New York Times article on the legal battle over the diCorcia Heads series.
Do you support Philip-Lorca diCorcia or Erno Nussenzweig? Write a short paper explaining your position. Articulate your ideas about the legality, ethics, and artistic license of this case and the right to take, sell, and display photographs taken without the knowledge of the subject.
Callahan vs. diCorcia
Explore. In 1950 and 1961, photographer Harry Callahan took candid headshots of women on the busy streets of Chicago. Click each thumbnail to view a larger image:
He used 35 mm film—the fastest film speed available at the time—with his telephoto lens set at four feet.
Reflect. Pick one image from Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads series and compare it to one of Callahan’s photographs from 50 years before. How are they similar? How are they different?