While the invention of the camera and advancement of photography are best known in the contexts of the history of technology or the emergence of a new art form, cameras have been used for more than commercial concerns, scientific interests, or artistic work. From the earliest use of the camera and the emergence of consumer models of camera technology, nonprofessional photography has had an important parallel history. Ordinary people have taken their cameras home to produce the most frequent of all photographic imagery on a worldwide basis, namely the personal, nonprofessional production and use of personal pictures including snapshots, family albums, home movies, home video, and, more recently, family websites and even personal camera phone images. Amateurs have played a significant role in advancing the visual documentation of the everyday, of the private features of family life. Results have been highly valued in personal ways but far less so in commercial or scholarly contexts.
Photographic and image scholarship has been relatively slow to respond in any serious or sustained way. Home-mediated amateur forms of imagery comprise the least studied and critically reviewed mode of pictorial communication within the mediascape of our contemporary symbolic environment. Some attention has been given to artistic approximations such as folk art or the snapshot aesthetic school, or to historic locations in fine art, or cinema as related to (and occasionally included in) documentary film. Other efforts include some sociological and anthropological interest in indigenous media. Other authors have found connections of amateur photography to memory, to inventions of the past, to family socialization, to literary biography and autobiography, and to a lesser extent, to therapy and the detection of pathology.
Two points of neglect are significant. The generic, vernacular home-grown model has been ignored in favor of unusual examples as when a historically significant event has been accidentally recorded with home equipment (e.g., Zapruder 8 mm footage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, video recording of the Rodney King beating). The increasingly popular use of cellphone cameras and blog display (London Tube bombing) are calling further attention to amateur camera use.
Second, a communication paradigm has been seldom used; image content has been attended to at the expense of attention to communicative process. In general, a singular focus on vernacular photography as a pictorial expressive form, as culturally sensitive communicative messages, unrelated to art, has been rare. While amateur stills, film, and video represent the world in different ways they also represent different experiences for both image-makers and viewers.
Much amateur photography evolves from George Eastman’s 1888 innovations and new motion-picture technology in the early 1930s. Changes in three contextual factors have unsettled the meaning of any reference to amateur photography and moviemaking. First, the meaning of “amateur” has undergone revisions as different models and types of camera use have increased, e.g., casual family “snapshot” photographers, camera club members (using darkrooms, entering contests and exhibitions), camera-phone photographers, and other people who are involved and serious about photography without financial compensation. Second, the range of consumer technology available for nonprofessional photography has expanded, from box cameras, to single-use (or throwaway) cameras, to instant cameras, to digital cameras and now cameras embedded in mobile telephones. And third, the range of the pictorial formats has grown in popularity and variety, e.g., instant photography, photo-booth images, digital cameras, phone-pictures, 16 mm to 8 mm to Super-8 and then to a range of video formats, and the like.
The international existence and immense popularity of amateur photography and movies fit into a more general framework, namely, home media. When compared to mass media and formally structured modes of mass communication, home media attends to all forms of informally derived media, theoretically and practically framed as part of home culture. The cross-cultural study of home media includes a range of expression generated in spoken and written forms as well as pictorial/visual, mediated forms that are shared and retained primarily within private and personal networks of friends, family, clan, caste, and community. The production, content, use, and reception of visual home media can be seen as embedded within media culture, visual culture, and the home mode of visual communication (Chalfen 1987; 1991).
Studies integrating home media and visual communication center around the need to develop models for both qualitative and quantitative description and analysis – specifically for how snapshots, family albums, and home movies/videos (and now family web pages) can be studied as cultural documents within the contexts of personal anthropology, indigenous imagery, visual narrative structure, family folklore, photo-therapeutic applications including metaphorical meanings of “Kodak culture,” “Sony society,” and “Polaroid people.” Future study of amateur photography will need to address technological convergence resulting in new image formats. Interaction of home and mass modes of communication are increasing from a penetration of amateur still and motion-picture forms. We find fabricated snapshots in professional advertisements and fine art; we see filmic facsimiles of home movies in documentary and art film; fabricated home movies are made for feature films, video examples are edited into popular television programs, and most recently, home-video excerpts are put on commercial websites such as YouTube. Examples of amateur and professional imagery are appearing next to one another on news broadcasts, as photojournalists compete with blog-displayed amateur pictures. In short, amateur photographs as home media will continue to escape the home with greater frequency and, in turn, present new opportunities for study and theory-building.
- Bourdieu, P., et al. (1990). Photography: A middle-brow art. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Chalfen, R. (1987). Snapshot versions of life. Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press.
- Chalfen, R. (1991). Turning leaves: The photograph collections of two Japanese American families. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- Hirsch, M. (1997). Family frames: Photography, narrative, and post-memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Moran, J. M. (2002). There’s no place like home video. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Spence, J., & Holland, P. (1991). Family snaps: The meanings of domestic photography. London:
- Weiser, J. (1993). Photo therapy techniques: Exploring the secrets of personal snapshots and family albums. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Zimmerman, P. (1995). Reel families: A social history of amateur film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.