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Aline Saarinen taking a photograph, circa 1955 (Archives of American Art/Smithsonian Institution.)

Little Pictures, Big Lives: Snapshots Of American Artists

Aug 8, 2011 (Morning Edition)

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Andy Warhol and friends on the beach Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner pose on the beach with Helen Frankenthaler and Clement Greenberg, circa 1952.

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Whether you're on vacation or stay-cation this summer, chances are you're taking pictures. Smartphones make picture-taking easier and more popular than ever. But in earlier years, photography was more of an event. At the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, an exhibition called "Little Pictures, Big Lives" shows snapshots from the 1920s through the '60s. And many of the people in these photos happen to be some of this country's greatest artists.

Poking through the archive folders — in there with the letters, diaries and documents — curator Merry Foresta came upon a snapshot of some college kids on the beach. Three pretty girls in bathing suits; over on the left side, inspecting the sand, is a guy in a long-sleeved turtle neck and dark-rimmed glasses.

It's Andy Warhol before he became Andy Warhol. The snapshot was taken in the 1940s when he was a student at Carnegie Mellon (then the Carnegie Institute of Technology). He and his and pals pop up in snaps taken on the beach, or in the dorm, the cafeteria. These are unguarded moments — quick pictures of people having fun.

"I love them because they are real snapshots in the golden era of snapshot style," Foresta says. "They've got the wonderful decaled edges on them, which makes them interesting as material objects."

Merry Foresta calls the 1920s through 1960s the golden era of snapshots — a period when everybody bought cameras and began making black-and-white — later color — memories. The Archives of American Art has thousands of them, usually un-dated, often by anonymous photographers, who captured Ansel Adams, Alexander Calder, Picasso (the Spanish painter's image turned up in files of American Surrealist painter William Baziotes). Foresta thinks the snaps are a form of biography, pieces of visual culture with a unique kind of authenticity.

These days, we take digital pictures at the blink of an iPhone. In the days of film, there was a bit more to it: "You took the pictures, you went to the drugstore, you dropped them off and three days later you got the prints back," says Foresta.

In those days, it was as if you couldn't really be a family unless you had photographs of the family. Organized people (usually moms) mounted them in albums. (My mother wrote identifications under each picture — in white ink, on the black album paper.) Or, Foresta says, the snapshots multiplied in shoeboxes in the closet:

"When an older relative came, you took down the big box of all these loose snapshots and you went through them and you remembered. And it was a delightful experience because you were adding history as you went along. You added those dates, you added some names. You got to see your mother when she was 15 years old, You got to see your father when he went off to the navy."

The archives exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum's National Portrait Gallery has snapshots of mothers or fathers or friends who were part of the lives of those who would become famous for making art — major 20th-century artists.

"The wonderful thing about looking at snapshots of artists is that it raises the stakes a little bit," says Foresta. That a snapshot of a man holding daisies out to his love is a sweet picture, "but when you know that it's Jackson Pollack [giving] daisies ... to Lee Krasner, it becomes a different picture," she says.

Theirs was a stormy relationship for all kinds of reasons. But this daisy snapshot preserves the undated smiles of a summer day in East Hampton. It really does feel as if we are learning something new about these people we thought we knew so well. That's what makes so many of these pictures special.

Today, with cameras at the tips of our fingers, there are more photographs than we can keep track of. Billions of them, made just in this year. Merry Foresta says whether we are artists, or grandparents or recent graduates, we're all still gathering pieces of evidence.

"It's just slightly different," she explains. "Now we manage to carry our shoebox of pictures around with us all the time. It's not just one snapshot that we slide into our wallet. It's the whole smartphone of images that we carry around with us all the time," says Foresta.

"Little Pictures, Big Lives: Snapshots from the Archives of American Art" is on view in Washington until early October. Some 200 small, sometimes shiny pieces of paper, shot from the hip or the heart.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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