Picture Imperfect

Candid and unpretentious, found photos testify to the wondrous ambiguities of anonymity

| July / August 2006

In the picture, an old man in a checked shirt proudly displays a big open-mouthed bass tucked under his arm. Click. Now a small boy wearing a tie stands at attention next to a 1950s-era TV. His eyes seem to pop out of his face like a pair of black marbles. Click. This time we see a couple in the backseat of a car, framed by the rear window. Clouds of white fabric rise into view on both sides-it must be a wedding dress. The photo, looking like something you'd find in the garbage or underfoot on the street, has a battered edge, its surface littered with little nicks and scuff marks. Click.

There are 572 photos, though by the time you read this there may be more. Each click of the 'next' button brings up a new snapshot: husbands and wives, mothers and children, friends, young lovers, pet owners, car owners, men in uniform, beach scenes, garden scenes, people in restaurants, people in the countryside, passengers on ships. Most of the images are undated, and few of them provide details about their subjects.

The website, called Look at Me, is one of the many devoted to found photography (www.moderna.org/lookatme). Anyone can submit pictures to be posted, though the images must be at least 25 years old and personal pictures and studio shots don't qualify. Instead they should be 'found'-on the sidewalk, in forgotten boxes stored in cluttered attics, from old albums acquired at flea markets.

Similar to the snapshots that fill our own family albums, these photos, when they are cut loose from their points of origin, become objects of deep mystery. Who are these people? What are the stories behind these ordinary scenes? We have no way of knowing, so we can fantasize and speculate.

The interest in found photography began in the art world. Joachim Schmid, a German artist, collects and organizes this kind of material, notably in his Pictures from the Street project, which he began over 20 years ago. Hungarian artist and filmmaker Sándor Kardos' Horus Archive consists of more than 200,000 amateur photos (galeria.origo.hu/horus/hoeng.html). In 2002, in a New York bookshop, Brooklyn illustrator Jonathon Rosen drew my attention to a copy of Thomas Walther's Other Pictures (Twin Palms, 2000), a collection of amateur snapshots, many from the 1920s and 1930s, and none more recent than around 1960. I bought it immediately. 'There is no faking, no strain, no theory here,' writes Walther, 'only the simplicity and directness of capturing moments of life.' The book focuses on images with an inadvertently surreal quality resulting from blurring, odd compositions, negative effects, inexplicable light flares, and serendipitous double exposures.

One reason for critics' and curators' preoccupation with anonymous forms of photography is the challenge it poses to the idea that only pictures by  celebrated photographers deserve study. The unschooled photographer can produce images every bit as engaging, both aesthetically and in content, as anything taken by widely exhibited professionals. More broadly, these unofficial images answer a persistent need to believe that photographs can still capture some essential, unvarnished truth about the subject. Even before the digital era, professional photographers were often shown to have manipulated images that might appear to represent actuality; amateur photographers can still be given the benefit of the doubt. Their directness, ineptitude, and lack of artifice become signs of reliability.

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