Sonja Campbell is an artist, photographer, and creative force behind The Snapshot Museum. Her work has appeared in The Times, Independent, and Guardian Newspapers. She lives in the UK (Morecambe) with her writer husband and two young sons. In the following interview, we talked about her love of snapshots and establishment of the Snapshot Museum.
ephemera: How did you become interested in snapshots?
Campbell: I was fascinated as a child by my Grandparents’ collection of photographs – it seemed to span a huge amount of time to my young eyes. I would beg them every week to get the black bin liner out that contained them; I never got bored of doing this. They are old and infirm now but that bag of pictures that’s now stored away is like the holy grail to me.
My mum also kept a few select snapshots in a Christmas card box. My parents divorced when I was very young, so I had never known them together. The box contained photo booth images of them as teenagers, kissing and looking very much the beautiful young couple. It felt good to see they liked each other once.
I think I realized through my family’s snapshots that they had a life before me and that they were someone other than my Mum, Dad, or Grandparents. My grandparents took lots of photographs and I was given a camera very early which started my lifelong love of photography. I love the pictures I took on those weird little point and shoot cameras from the 80’s.
When I was studying at Glasgow School of Art in the 90’s, I used these early snaps in my work, and I suppose that’s when I began to collect other people’s snapshot photographs.
No, it was purely by accident. It started whilst I was at Art School, and I used some found photographs in an installation piece. It actually caused a bit of an uproar. Using found photos – let alone humble snapshots - for a Fine Art Photography degree scandalized the head of department. The odd thing is, these first pictures are some of my best finds.
From there, I just started picking up interesting things at flea markets or in charity shops. I would find curious things, like wedding slides from the 1960’s or a photo album belonging to a cruise ship DJ from the 1980’s. From therein, the collection began to grow. I find it fascinating to get such an intimate peep into a stranger’s life.
I used to think it sad there was no-one to pass these personal things onto. But now, I realize that snapshot collections can be so voluminous that they become meaningless and over facing for families; who then tend to discard or put them away in the loft. Often they’re just seen as someone else’s nostalgia.
I realized that I had quite a large collection of these odd random photographs; that’s when the idea for the Museum started to grow in my mind. I’m just beginning to dip my toe into the world of dealing. I tend to get very attached to things but due to sheer volume I have to let some things go.
ephemera: What challenges or obstacles do you encounter as a collector? How do you overcome these challenges?
Campbell: One of the most frustrating things is that there are so many snapshots floating around out there, and so many get discarded day after day. It’s impossible to catch them all before they’re taken to the local tip. It seems like every other time I tell someone about the project, they tell me they’ve just thrown a load away.
Also getting people to trust what will happen to their photographs when they donate them, generally people think I’m a bit mad for wanting them. I was given a superb collection of slides by a lady; they had belonged to her father and she told me there were lots of pictures of him goofing about and dressing up, and that it just wasn’t the father she had known. She was glad to get rid of them. I’ve been told by people that do house clearances when someone dies, that they destroy the photographs as they class them as personal papers; I wince at the prospect of what I’m missing.
My other major challenge is letting go of things. Right now I’m in the process of selecting images for my website saleroom; it’s tough as I do get very attached to things. I’m temporarily overcoming this by selling limited edition prints on the site from original vintage slides. I get to keep the original, the buyer gets a beautiful print. However, I will very soon be selling lots of my original vintage prints. It’s time to make room for more photographs.
ephemera: What are your favorite items in the collection?
Campbell: Oh, I have so many! I have a rare photograph of a man dressed in a bear suit from 1930 - it’s beautiful; he is holding the bear head under his arm. The bear has big, blank staring eyes and the man’s eyes are blurred as the camera’s slow shutter has caught him blinking.
Another lovely photograph is from the 1940’s of two people rowing. Rowing pictures are fairly common but this has a lovely sense of equilibrium to it. They both appear to be really ‘pulling together’. I love the lady’s concentration with her tongue sticking out, and the man’s stretching body. To me this is a great picture about love and togetherness.
I really like wit in a snapshot and buy lots of things because they make me laugh, some are taken to record a fun moment and others are just plain crazy. Like an innocent image of two small kids stood in front of a monstrous huge army tank never fails to make me laugh, the absurdity of the image. But then that’s the beauty of the found image, putting your own story to it.
The tank picture came from a military family, so the motivation for taking the photograph would have been to show off this great tank. I just see a darkly comic image of war machine juxtaposed with children.
I also love the sometimes rigid formality of snapshots; the obvious and clumsy compositions. Or tiny people posed in a massive landscape, I have lots of these. The things the text books tell you not to do, I love that. I adore a picture of two ladies in floral dresses sat on a green bench against a wall, the composition is completely centered with loads of detail and pattern in one half and just plain sky in the top, lovely.
ephemera: Tell me about the Museum. What are your plans for it?
Campbell: I’ve just launched the website this week www.snapshot-museum.com with some of the best photographs in the collection. The site is starting off small but the images will be regularly expanded and updated. There’s also a saleroom selling vintage photographs and prints to order from original vintage slides.
The Museum also has a tiny showcase temporarily housed in a glass and mahogany ticket booth inside the Winter Gardens, a huge rundown old music hall in the English seaside town of Morecambe. It’s lovely, but the space measures less than 16 feet square, so there’s a limit to what I can do there. I’ve been showing the collection of a 94-year-old lady who came to see me with her albums. It’s quite amazing really to feature someone who’s almost as old as the building itself.
I’m currently working on setting up a permanent base for the museum/gallery, however. The plan is to run exhibitions, workshops, talks, a film club, screening cine films and good old fashioned slide shows. Basically, Britain’s only resource dedicated to snapshot photography. I’ve found the right premises and am going through the motions of securing funding.
I lived and worked in London for over a decade, but relocated to Morecambe about four years ago. It’s all too easy to start up off-beat ideas in London’s East End or Brighton, but there’s something exciting about setting up a fairly niche venture in a relatively obscure part of the world. Somehow, it seems like this quirky little seaside town in North West England is the perfect place for The Snapshot Museum. Morrissey eulogized Morecambe as ‘the coastal town they forgot to close down’ in his song, Everyday is Like Sunday. Happily things have perked up since his last visit.
I like the idea of nurturing local involvement via the gallery, but also being able to develop the Snapshot Museum’s international profile through the website. In the meantime I’ll continue to organize various off-site exhibitions and events, and curate new and interesting shows for the website. I would also love to organize a vernacular photo fair here in the UK, sometime soon.
At present I don’t have a permanent site for the Museum, so the storage is a little chaotic. I have a studio on the top floor of my house and I’m in the process of cataloging and filing the collection - which up until now has existed in a kind of orderly chaos. Luckily, I have the sort of mind that knows exactly where everything is, so it’s in control.
Fortunately, snapshots are pretty resilient having been manhandled for decades - they are made to be handled and looked at. But I do employ the usual archival means of acid free mounting board and UV resistant glass whenever possible.
I have a large collection of vintage picture frames, so try to utilize them when I can. I did an exhibition ‘526 Smiles’ in May 2007 and used vintage frames with the photographs. They are kind of made for each other. However, it’s great to see the pictures gallery framed, giving them the kudos they deserve.
ephemera: Good luck with the Museum, Sonja. It sounds like a wonderful projects. And thank you for sharing your love of snapshots with the ephemera blog audience.