What is vernacular photography?

Everything You Wanted to Know About Vernacular Photography

Vernacular photography includes pictures by amateur makers, studio practitioners, itinerant and press photographers—many whom work unconcerned with the medium’s fine art applications.

Group of 22 photographs from NASA missions, 1965-84, printed circa 1985. Sold for $43,750 in February 2017.

Related Reading: Our Best Pictures of the Apollo Missions & Space at Large

The First Auction Dedicated to Vernacular Photographs

Vernacular photography includes pictures by amateur makers, studio practitioners, itinerant and press photographers–many of whom were unconcerned with the medium’s fine art applications. In April 2014, we held the first sale devoted to this material. Snapshots by hobbyists, family albums, commercial portraiture, product imagery, occupational photographs, travel or souvenir images are all excellent examples associated with the genre. Swann’s purpose wasn’t to define the genre, but to present a range of thought-provoking pictures and objects that contribute to an ongoing and important dialogue. As a result, Swann’s inaugural sale cast a wide net. 

Pop Photographica

“Pop photographica,” a term coined by Swann Galleries Vice President Daile Kaplan, is used to describe three-dimensional objects that incorporate photographs. This Hills Brothers Coffee can features a 1969 reproduction of Ansel Adams’s Winter Morning, Yosemite Valley, California, and is complemented by four menus from Yosemite National Park’s restaurant Ahwahnee Hotel, each with Ansel Adams reproductions. The lot sold on February 25, 2016 for $1,250.

Mug shot of Emma Goldman, “The High Priestess of Anarchy,” silver prints, Chicago, 1901. Sold for $10,625 in October 2018.

Recognizing the Value of Vernacular Photography

Pioneering collectors have positioned this material as an exciting and expansive approach to the field of photography. Visionaries like Sam Wagstaff and John Szarkowski understood that photography is not a unilateral modality, but a myriad medium that continues to evolve and reinvent itself, reflecting cultural and popular currents. While collecting examples of fine art photography is a serious, rewarding endeavor, the art of appreciating all kinds of imagery is what distinguishes a true connoisseur.        

Archive of 115 photographs documenting a beauty school in Winnipeg, Minnesota, 1950-60s. Sold for $5,125 in April 2019.

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