Formal vs Casual

I saw really earnest documentary photographers who, had you put 35mm cameras in their hands, would’ve suddenly been about level horizons and juxtaposing foregrounds and backgrounds. None of that; this process was completely unselfconscious, fun and experiential. It had nothing to do with the photography that they usually make, to the point that they didn’t realize they were making pictures!

Photographs Are No Longer Things,
They’re Experiences

Forget about the awful headline for that article. The rest of it is interesting and touches on a number of topics which interest me. This isn’t about things versus experiences. Anyone who cares about photography understands that its history of increased access/amateurization has meant that it’s been about experiences all along. The distinction has been one of formal versus casual photography.

Formal photos are those which have “serious” purposes.* They may be art, photojournalism, or official portraits. But they’re taken with the intent—at some level—to publish and display them long term.

*“Serious” being used with full awareness of how I hate the term.

Casual photos are those which are for private use. They’re the ones which get dismissed as “snapshots” or “vernacular photos.” Yet they’re also the ones which, if we know who the subjects are, we love and treasure more.* The increased amateurization of photography and photography equipment has served to make it both easier and cheaper to take casual photos.

*Compare “That’s me in 3rd grade” with “That’s me at Disneyland with grandpa when I was 8.”

Now, there is a big change going on over the past decade which has had a huge influence on photography and how it’s used. But it has nothing to do with photographic technology. The increased access to information, our increased willingness to share our private information, and the erosion of what we can expect to be private have all resulted in shifting what we used to consider casual/private to now be acceptable in public.

It’s no surprise to me that as this shift has occurred, professional photographers have been entering into areas which we used to consider private. We’re still in a world where we expect those items to be casually photographed so getting professional work in those areas stands out as distinctive. But as our understanding of what is private catches up to reality? We should expect to see an increased awareness of how casual photos should really be considered propaganda.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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