Found Photos

No one, Pascal once said, dies so poor that he does not leave something behind. Surely it is the same with memories too, although these do not always find an heir.
—Walter Benjamin

That image, of memories without heirs, seems to perfectly describe my feelings about these “found photos”.

All of these photos were found at lawn sales, auctions, or even at the town dump. All of them had been abandoned. Snapshots are everywhere. People have drawers and boxes filled with them. They are carried around in wallets. They are set up in people’s homes as family shrines. They are sent to friends and relatives.

Even as I was writing that paragraph, I was aware of the fact that it should have been written in the past tense. The advent of digital photography has brought an era, “the era of snapshots”, to an end. The photos that I’ve collected were all created in the twentieth century. They no longer chronicle of the present time. They have become an historical record. That said, they still hold a fascination for me.

Many years ago, I bought a barrel of rain-soaked photos at a lawn sale. I had an impulse to save them. I found myself moved by the survival of the images, despite the vicissitudes of neglect and rain and time. I began to collect old photos wherever I found them. As I looked at these pictures I found myself most fascinated by the most modest of them, not the professional photographer’s works, but the snapshots. Often the ones with mistakes moved me the most: the double exposure, the picture out of focus, the one with the shadow of the photographer in the foreground, the picture that had been badly treated, rained on, folded bent etc. These mistakes seemed to communicate the “magic” of photography to me.

In my photographic work I was always especially entranced, said Austerlitz, by the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again if you cling to them, just like a photographic print left in the developing bath too long.
—W. G. Sebald

Or here’s another quote from a woman whose house had just been lost in a wildfire. “The memories, the photos, this is the house I have worked all my life for,” she said Friday as she and her family picked through the smoldering debris. I’m struck by the fact that snapshots are precious and at the same time have little monetary value. When the victims of Hurricane Katrina could finally visit their wrecked homes, they brought out their snapshots. When the refugees from the war between Hezbollah and the Israelis could finally visit their homes again, they rescued the family photographs.

Looking at snapshots of one’s own family or friends is a vastly different experience from looking at photos of strangers. I think that when one is looking at photos of strangers archetypes are more readily perceived. Partly as a way to organize my thoughts about these photos, partly because these archetypes began to reveal themselves to me, I began to organize the photos into categories. I think it was mainly a way to allow me to think about the images more deeply.