The show, which runs through Dec. 30 in the Littman Gallery, features images by anonymous shutterbugs taken throughout the 20th century
The latest exhibit within the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University–New Brunswick provides a lens into the lives of everyday people who captured intimate moments through photographs.
The exhibition, Snapshots! Selections from the Peter J. Cohen Gift, runs through Dec. 30 in the Littman Gallery at the Zimmerli, 71 Hamilton St., New Brunswick. Admission is free to the public.
The show, a compilation of about 70 photographs by anonymous shutterbugs taken throughout the 20th century (plus one from 1893), celebrates the power of amateur photography, Zimmerli officials said.
Cohen, a New York resident who recently retired as a financial investor, is a longtime collector of vernacular photography. Over the decades, Cohen has amassed tens of thousands of photographs purchased in flea markets and other marketplaces, including eBay and Etsy.
Cohen’s interest in these snapshots began in the early 1990s, when he would frequent a flea market along Sixth Avenue in New York City.
Cohen said one day at the market, he turned a corner and came across a woman selling photos, seemingly taken from family albums, from a plastic bin. He bought five.
“They just spoke to me,” said Cohen, who has donated portions of his archive to about 40 museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago. “I don't know how else to say it. I thought they were interesting, fun and engaging.”
Hannah Shaw, who was a graduate curatorial assistant at the Zimmerli and is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History at Rutgers, organized the exhibition with the assistance of Halle McNabb, an intern and bachelor of fine arts student at the Mason Gross School of the Arts.
The idea of a snapshot is it captures a very quick moment in time, and it leads one to wonder what happened just before this picture and what happens just after.
Peter J. Cohen
Collector of vernacular photography
Shaw visited Cohen's New York apartment to select images that Cohen donated to the Zimmerli with Donna Gustafson, the museum’s chief curator, and Austin Losada, another student working at the Zimmerli.
“One of the challenges of working with snapshots is that they don't generally come with contextual information,” said Shaw, noting the photos were grouped based on themes, such as family and friends.
Shaw said her favorite photos in the collection are the ones with playful and inventive compositions.
“There’s a whole series of group portraits on ladders, and in one [photo], four women positioned themselves on a grain silo,” she said. “Seeing it just always makes me smile.”
Cohen said he is delighted with the Zimmerli’s latest exhibit.
“I think they chose very good snapshots,” said Cohen, adding he hopes the photos spark a dialogue among visitors of the Zimmerli. “The idea of a snapshot is it captures a very quick moment in time, and it leads one to wonder what happened just before this picture and what happens just after. I like that part about it.”
Shaw said she is thankful for her involvement in the Snapshots! show.
“It's very special for me to be able to put on a photography exhibition while I'm also studying the medium in an academic context,” Shaw said. “I’m so appreciative of the opportunities I've had at the Zimmerli and think it's such a wonderful thing that students are invited to be this involved in planning exhibitions.”
It isn’t the first time the Zimmerli has showcased everyday items, said Theresa Watson, public relations and communications coordinator for the art museum. In 2014, the Zimmerli featured a collection of 445 photobooth images that a man took of himself from the 1930s through the 1960s. The mystery of the man’s identity captured the imaginations of a worldwide audience. (And, yes, the mystery has been solved.)