In early 2007 one of my local institutions, the Staten Island Museum, commissioned me to respond in writing to a set of 49 photographs drawn from its extensive collection. The group consists of Island scenes depicted in lantern slides, commercially produced postcards, amateur photographs, professionally made group portraits, film stills, and assorted other forms. Diane Matyas, Director of Exhibits and Programs at the museum, specifically indicated the goal as the creation of a “virtual exhibition” for the museum’s website that would reflect the richness of the museum’s archives.
Using Powerpoint (I’ve since switched to Keynote), I created a slideshow, ordering the images in rough chronology and captioning them. This gave me the opportunity to mix my knowledge of photography and visual culture with my awareness of Staten Island’s history and development. My commentary, as you’ll see, ranges widely across those subject areas, touching on such diverse areas as mail art and hand-coloring of photographs.
The result, which first went online at the Museum’s website in the fall of ’07, now appears as a QuickTime movie at YouTube, under the title “Staten Island in Photographs.” The introductory text I wrote reads as follows:
“Scholars refer to the physical objects that a society produces as elements of its material culture. They consider those objects of material culture intended to serve the purpose of visual communication as components of that society’s visual culture. Photographs are such artifacts.
“The photographic images and objects in this selection, from the collection of the Staten Island Museum, thus constitute a cross-section of Staten Island’s material culture and its visual culture as well.
“With Staten Island now the fastest-growing borough in New York City, and the fastest-growing county in New York State, the island’s past, as recorded in these pictures, has never been more relevant. Historians, critics, and curators of photography have come to use the term ‘vernacular photography’ to describe everything from amateur snapshots to photo-booth images to commercial studio portraits to newspaper photographs. Admittedly, it’s a catch-all for that vast welter of photographic images and objects that don’t fall easily into the categories of fine art, documentary, photojournalism, scientific/medical imagery, and other specific usages of the medium.
“The images in this selection would all fit into that classification. This does not devalue them in any way. They constitute a mother lode of visual history that we have only begin to mine.”
Here’s another of the images in the group, this one a panorama of Tappen Park, just three blocks from our house. My wife and I walked through it yesterday; though recently renovated, it hasn’t changed much at all. The layout’s the same, and some of the same trees still stand.
— A. D. Coleman