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Vernacular photographs, those countless ordinary and everyday pictures are made for all kinds of utilitarian reasons: as snapshots, for government archives, scientific proof, or police case files, pin-up posters, or souvenir postcards, are among the most compelling categories in photographic history. The term vernacular is also used to describe images of families, casual portraits of people we will never know but whose pictures we find fascinating, records of personal or public events, and all manner of other images that reveal the telling qualities of character or culture captured by the camera lens. These images demonstrate the widespread popularity of photography in a prosperous industrial age that included railroads and steamships, newspaper printing presses, the telegraph, and the growing middle class. They are pieces of a visual puzzle that we have only begun to research and think about.
In 1996 the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired more than 300 photographs, including vernacular images, from the Charles Isaacs Collection. These images describe the first hundred years of photography in America. These and other more recently acquired photographs, including daguerreotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes, picture postcards, and hand-colored photographs provide an historical framework that complements modern and contemporary areas.