100 Years of People Kissing

An artist, curator and author talks about her new book of found photographs

Judas' public display of affection betrayed Jesus,  Katy Perry's intimate moment sparked self-discovery and then, despite not having given her consent, a stolen kiss gave Sleeping Beauty life. 

The not so simple act of locking lips has dominated culture since forever, and this powerful gesture runs the gamut of emotions from love to lust. It can be a polite greeting or a passive aggressive taunt, a derisory peck on the cheek of a musky great-aunt to the lasciviousness of a kiss down below, and so what better time to celebrate this tasty treat than ahead of Valentine's Day? 

Artist, curator and author Barbara Levine, whose previous books include People Fishing: A Century of Photographs(2018); People Knitting: A Century of Photographs (2016); Finding Frida Kahlo (2009), Around The World: The Grand Tour in Photo Albums(2007); and Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing the American Photo Album (2006), has documented 100 years of kissing in her latest book People Kissing: A Century of Photographs (Princeton Architectural Press) by Barbara Levine and Paige Ramey.

And while Barbara's lips were sealed when it came to her first kiss, how she likes to be kissed, who she'd most like to kiss and who'd win in a fight between a French kiss and a butterfly kiss, she did indulge our more chaste questions and then shared a selection of photographs from her new book. 

100 years of people kissing

To start, perhaps you can share the story of how you found these photos?

There is a sea of anonymous photographs around us – vintage snapshots and the like that can be found at flea markets, in giveaway piles, on eBay etc. Often people who know what we are working on will bring us photos and sometimes when people are downsizing or they have inherited family photos and don't know what to do with them they will send us boxes of pictures. Most people consider them worthless. Naturally, we don't feel that way!

Then, please would you introduce our readers to Project B, the books you publish and anything else we need to know about you and your work.

Paige Ramey and I are artists who collect vintage found photos (also known as vernacular photography) and archivists who curate. For years both of us worked in museums and arts organisations. I was especially interested in the history of photography and how to expand our understanding of meaning and visual literacy. We started PROJECT B in 2000 using our extensive archive as the basis for artwork, exhibitions, publications and collaborations with other artists. 

Your book documents 100 years of kissing, how has kissing changed over the years?

Before the age of photography, kissing was a private, secular affair, and widespread images of people kissing were fairly uncommon. Photography changed everything: suddenly the most intimate expressions of affection could be reproduced and shared privately and publicly. Nowadays, all manner of kissing photos are popular and kissing is a public act, a kind of performance for the camera.

What are some of the stories that these photographs tell?

When you look at found photography, you're activating a story. Paige and I started to notice how many pictures we had of people kissing in our archive and it seemed like a real jumping off point for examination about the relationship between photography and kissing.  For example, with kissing photos we immediately start creating a story: Who are they? What do they see in each other? Is it mutual? Are they kissing the way I kiss, or want to be kissed? Who was the invisible photographer who had access to the intimate moment?  The interpretations and stories are endless.

As a trained photographer what draws you to amateur photographs?

The best vernacular photographs exert a power to fascinate through composition, subject matter and mystery. They transcend. time and place to speak to contemporary questions and sensibilities.

You watch our photographic literacy develop as the years go by, and there are different things in different eras that are interesting and it is all part of the story so it's important to try to tell that story through shifting ideas and trends.

With found photographs there are infinite combinations and interpretations. We became aware it was important to use our curatorial skills to edit and examine the layers within a picture and bring seemingly disparate images together to understand the artifact nature of found images and their ability to reveal something not seen at first glance.

100 years of people kissing

What exactly is "vintage vernacular photography"?

Vernacular photographs are  images made by amateurs and photographers unknown that take everyday life and common things as subjects. Examples of vintage vernacular imagery include snapshots, product imagery, news pictures, humorous travel or souvenir images, photograph albums, etc.. 

What's the next 100 years of... project?

Stay tuned! We have several new projects in the works!

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Justin and Hailey Bieber