Poetics of the Everyday: Amateur Photography 1890-1970 at St. Louis Art Museum

As I pull into the parking lot, Sturgill Simpson leaks through the speakers.  “The dead will still be walking around this whole world alone.  Well after life is over the afterlife goes on...”  I put it in park.  Turn off the radio.  I mean my phone.  Hum the next refrain to myself as I walk to the entrance of the St. Louis Art Museum.  I like it here.  This time, I’m here for the Amateur Photography Exhibit.  

I keep walking.  I keep humming.  

Arriving at the double glass doors, I meet the exhibit.  I enter, and immediately, I’m hit with the wall of description…Poetics of the Everyday:  Amateur Photography: 1890-1970:

This exhibition draws attention to an extraordinary period beginning in the late 19th century, when portable cameras became available to throngs of enthusiastic amateur photographers…these photographs are rich in detail and complex in composition, entangling us in their small worlds.  As unique physical prints, they reflect a different relationship to picture making than we have in our digital era.  This exhibition helps tell a larger story about the history of photography…

A quick scan of the exhibit.  It fills two rooms.  Seems to be divided into sections of like photos.  Slowly, well, not so slowly, I meander from section to section; reading each accompanying blurb.  

I find myself lingering longer than intended in front of not one, not two, but three works.  Oddly, I can’t get Sturgill’s song out of my head.  I tap my foot.  Shake my hips.  Slightly.  It’s a slow song.  I’m in public.

One, a framed collage of black and white photos from long, long ago.  Mixed media on paper.  Photos salvaged, perhaps, and brittle from resting years in the bottom drawer of an old, old hutch.  Their destruction loomed with their resurrection.   I can smell the photos.  Feel their weight.  All have hand-written notes.  Names.  Dates.  Places.  All held meaning to someone somewhere but not to me.  I don’t know these people, nor do I know their photographer who was most likely a family member, a guest at the party.  Long gone.  

Two, a very eerie photo of a man standing in a field.  Ghost-like.  I laugh at the memory of how the development process was once just as delicate as these photos.  How if something went wrong somewhere that spooky image emerged.  The shutter glitched.  The light was too bright.  Something, anything that caused over exposure, a burn mark, or that faint image in the background.  That thing that sparked the imagination of the unexplained.  

My foot still taps.  “They’re just ghosts inside a dream of a life that we don’t own.”

I wonder, “Did the photographer know the gem he held?  Did she know someday, somewhere, someone would stand marveling at its beauty?  No doubt, the photo has faded over the years, but the fog complimented by the glitch in development sends a chill down my spine.  Did someone just blow in my ear?  Am I under an AC vent?  I step to the left.

Three, a series of a man diving into a pool.  Is it many different shots of one dive?  Did the cameras of yesteryear really react that quickly or is it different shots of many different dives?  Who is this man?  Who was the photographer?  The composition is truly lovely.

Alas, I come to the end.  A glass case filled with vintage cameras.  The cameras that once captured all these everyday moments.  Funny.  There’s a 1930s box camera.  A Beau Brownie No. 2 from 1931.  I have a very similar model that was my grandfather’s.  It sits on the shelf in my living room.  Every living room I’ve had for the last 30 years.  Pretty sure it pre-dates this model but not 100% sure.  I should check that out.

My thoughts then turn to my camera of today, or should I say phone of today.  Something that was once a luxury is now an everyday item.  Pictures we used to hold are now on a screen, untouchable.  My, how things change.  Yet, touchable or untouchable, weathered or pixelated, amateur or professional, the desire to hold onto a moment, leave a legacy, or create runs soul deep.  

“The dead don’t die anymore than you or I.  They’re just ghosts inside a dream of a life that we don’t own.  Well after life is over, the afterlife goes on.”  - Sturgill Simpson The Dead Don’t Die