Picture Imperfect

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.

Taken by family and friends to celebrate their subjects, these
pictures were a way of declaring: You are important, you matter to
me, this moment was significant and we should remember it. And yet,
the pictures’ warm intentions eventually become undone by events.
They become relics that-once lost, now reappearing in a stranger’s
collection-testify to life’s fragility.

Rick Poynor’s latest essay collection, Designing Pornotopia:
Travels in Visual Culture, will be published this fall by Princeton
Architectural Press. Excerpted from Print (March/April 2006), a
magazine celebrating design, culture, and youth. Subscriptions:
$57/yr. (six issues) from Box 420235, Palm Coast, FL 32142;
www.printmag.com.

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