Every Snapshot Tells a Story

Whether stuffed in a desk drawer or spread as wallpaper across a computer desktop, everyday snapshots have profound meaning. Photographic images of familiar people and places provoke family narratives that give meaning to the past and present, just as they imply a future, says Kristin Baxter, visiting assistant professor of art at Moravian College.

Recollections of Family Photographs from Five Generations: the Role of Narrative and Reflexivity in Organizing Experience, a new book by Kristin Baxter, explores how individuals assign meaning to family snapshots and whether art educators might use these images and the dialogues they inspire as a basis for curriculum design.

Based on Baxter's doctoral dissertation for Teachers College Columbia University, the book grew from her 2001 exhibition "recollections," which displayed embellished bits of ephemera—Barbie doll shoes, sea glass, a key chain, etc.—as fine art. The exhibit also included ten compelling family photographs, slides taken mostly in the '60s, chosen for their ability to connect with the viewer (see photo of Helen Lundström, below).

A Frame for Learning Art

Helen Lundström, Kristin Baxter's aunt, as Santa Claus. Long Island, NY, 1961. Photographer unknown. Family photos like these provoke narratives that make meaning of experience—and could be the basis for art curriculum design.

In Recollections of Family Photographs, Baxter uses these and other family photographs to collect narratives from members of her own family. More than simple labels, the narratives are stories about the associated people and places, seen and (often) unseen.

Narratives, like these, help organize human experience—they "give memory and experience meaning," says Baxter. "People have so much to say about snapshots—and the themes are the same as those in fine art."

These life experiences can and should be at the center of art curriculum design, she argues. "Teaching art should be student centered. Family life, social life … what matters most to the student should be at the center of art curriculum. Family snapshots could be used to initiate dialogues. I believe it is the art educator's job to guide dialogue in a way that will nurture the child’s own ideas, so that the piece he or she creates is their own. At the same time, they can see how their work relates to the larger world. It's making meaning of life’s experiences—not 'art.'"

Try This at Home

For those who would like to take a closer look at the meanings of their own family snapshots, Kristin suggests these considerations:

  • Notice the way your recollection of the subject can differ slightly each time you view the photo. Notice how the photo's meaning evolves.
  • Notice where you keep photos: on a laptop, in a shoe box, stuffed in a wallet, etc.
  • Consider the way the oldest pictures generate the most dialogue.
  • When viewing a family photo, ask, "How does this represent what matters most to us?"

Kristin Baxter recently completed an associated article, "The Role of Family Snapshots in Teaching Art History within a Dialogic Pedagogy," that discusses her use of snapshots to teach a museum-based art class. She will present the research from both her book and the article at the Pennsylvania Art Educators Association conference later this month.