PHOTOGRAPHY / Snap out of it: Joachim Schmid believes we should stop shooting endless rolls of family snapshots. Jane Richards finds out why

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The Independent Culture
Joachim Schmid - a German artist and collector - takes photographs seriously. He believes that we take too many of them and blames it on the ease with which people take snapshots. Last year, according to Kodak, two billion photographs were taken in Britain alone. But Schmid asserts that the chemicals used in the photographic process are polluting the planet. Consequently, he says, we should all stop taking new photographs and start recycling our old ones.

This concept is addressed in Schmid's exhibition 'Taking Snapshots: Amateur Photography in Germany from 1900 to the Present', now showing at Impressions Gallery, York. 'The relics of snapshot photography are accumulating to form a huge mountain of pictures that is, however, not easily accessible,' he says. Until now. Because now, Schmid has formed the Institute for Recycling Old Photos. And, as Schmid sees it, he's killing two birds with one stone: 'This growing mountain of snapshots can be seen as a kind of archive for everything,' he says, 'and can be used as raw material for a history of everyday culture.'

At first glance this is a potted history of snapshot photography. It's certainly a thorough survey of the German social and domestic scene, but it could just as easily be English, proving that snapshots are the same the world over. The snapshot is generally only accessible to the person whose life it portrays - try looking at someone else's holiday snaps and you get the picture. We've all taken them: shots of gurgling babies, formal wedding groups, mum stroking a pony over a country fence, members of the family holding the family cat, dad posing with his Sunday football team, Uncle Fred with the new car, family groups round the Christmas tree and children splashing around at the seaside. All instantly recognisable, all instantly forgettable.

But the layout of Schmid's exhibition offers an intriguing new perspective. Grouped together in thematic categories, the hitherto hidden language of snapshot photography emerges. Modelled on a natural history exhibition, the photographs are arranged in display cases, to be viewed as 'related species'. As Schmid explains, 'By analogy to the systematics of zoology or botany I have tried to impose an order on the world of pictures'. Thus, there are variations on baby, honeymoon couple, mother and child, people standing outside coaches, rowing boats and scenic view compositions. And then there's the bizarre Fifties /Sixties category showcasing people posing proudly with their television sets.

But it is the realisation that we take the same pictures time and time again - same compositions, same themes - that makes for uneasy, if compelling viewing. More disconcerting still, Schmid's recycling fad suddenly seems less of a half-baked idea. That we all insist on photographing the family dog in the back garden, that we're not the only ones who find it fascinating to take a snapshot of someone else taking a snapshot, that this year's picture of the family standing round the Christmas tree should be any different from last year's . . . All add up to one thing: that snapshots are, more often than not, boring and repetitive and that we are more likely to look through the viewfinder, press a button and immortalise an event than to actually relish the moment.

Towards the end of the show there's a showcase for classic snapshot cock-ups - a bleak reminder of the lowly status afforded by snapshot photography in the history of the medium. But as for chucking our instamatics over our shoulders and contenting ourselves with pictures of our past achievements, Joachim Schmid is destined to be disappointed. Life goes on, and as long as there are wedding days, Christmas Days and birthdays, photographs must be taken. Otherwise, how can we truly believe we were there?

'Taking Snapshots: Amateur Photography in Germany from 1900 to the Present', Impressions Gallery, 29 Castlegate, York (0904 654724) to 24 Apr

(Photograph omitted)