Lost and Found: Orphaned Family Photos as Art

A faded photograph of a young girl holding a baby bird in her hand stands in a frame on my dining room table. I bought it for a dollar last summer at a roadside antique shop somewhere in Maine. According to a handwritten note on the back, the girl is caring for the rescued bird, which had somehow ended up in the heart of the desert–“something that the people at the station had never heard of before. He was only a fledgling and evidently got lost.”

Like any good work of art, the picture raises more questions than it answers: Who and where is the girl in the plain dress? What is “the station”? Did the girl or the bird ever leave the desert? I’ve gathered over a hundred anonymous family snapshots like this one, almost all of them black-and-white, taken between 1930 and 1970, and all of them full of alluring possibilities and mysteries: Who are these proud parents, picnicking families, friends by the lake? How did these treasured family mementos end up in an antique store or a swap show?

Orphaned family snapshots are increasingly being elevated beyond their bargain-bin destinies. Collectors and photography dealers are taking an interest in these vernacular works. Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented Other Pictures, a show of anonymous snapshots drawn from the collection of the illustrious photo historian Thomas Walther, last year.

The introduction of easy-to-use, portable snapshot cameras, first produced by Kodak in 1888, led ordinary people to begin documenting their lives in pictures. (Formal studio portraiture was still sought out for special occasions.) But according to Richard Chalfen, a visual anthropologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, family snapshots are anything but representative of real life. In his research, Chalfen concluded that people use snapshots, videos, and home movies to construct an idealized visual record of how they want to be remembered–enjoying the good life, doing things right.

In Western cultures, “Kodak moments” tend to fall into obvious groupings: happy social events shared with kin; proud new possessions like cars, houses, and boats; athletic events and teams; and moments of public acknowledgment like graduations or award ceremonies. Snapshooters avoid recording commonplace activities like sleeping, watching TV, or cleaning the house. Given the amount of time spent earning a living, surprisingly few photos are taken of people at work. Nor do people document dramatic experiences like divorce, illness, death, and poverty. It adds up to a highly selective visual trail, yet people still see their photo albums as their lives in sum.

The primary appeal of snapshots is their irresistible emotional undertow. The people in them seem oddly familiar, even though they’re strangers. “The photograph acts as a memory trigger,” explain Catherine Lash and Jennifer Long, Toronto-based photographers and curators of the exhibition Certified Quality Snapshots. “Something as small as the way a woman adjusts her hat can immediately bring a flood of personal memories to the viewer.”

While most anonymous family snapshots can be picked up for a few dollars, the prices of those sold by photo dealers are largely determined by the condition of the photograph, personal aesthetic preferences, and the appeal of the photo’s subject to the buyer. Sexually suggestive shots–a bride posing bride posing in garters and bra for her groom, for example–tend to fetch higher prices. The rarity of an image also plays a determining role: While many middle- class families possessed at least one Instamatic camera by the 1950s, plenty of poorer African American, Latino, and immigrant families did not. Their family pictures are more valuable. Similarly, people seem willing to pay more for snapshots featuring “hidden history”–like candid snaps of gay social events where openly affectionate men hold hands, dance, kiss.

The poignancy that draws collectors derives in part from the paradoxical impulse of the snapshooter–whose intention was not to make a work of art, but rather to capture a moment, an emotion, or an impulse. Unlike an artist concerned with lighting, composition, and focus, a snapshooter may have cherished a photograph that is blurry and crops people’s heads off, if it captured a special moment. The New York photo critic and historian A.D. Coleman calls this typical feature of snapshots “the poignancy of failure.” Some collectors put a premium on precisely these types of imperfection–the fuzzy finger in the corner of a frame or random light flares that give a photo a surreal quality. It’s a failure full of good intentions, funny and sad in equal part. Though the snapshot is somehow doomed from the start, it is exquisite in its humble, constant striving.

From Saturday Night (July 15, 2000), published weekly as part of the Canadian National Post newspaper.

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