Someone finds something: a note in the street, an old picture at a boot sale. A postcard falls out of a book purchased from a charity shop. Found objects have been redeemed in the 21st century, and we look for them to redeem us. How much distance does there have to be between the finder and the found thing for it to be worthy of being found?
They are in so many ways the diametric opposite of “readymade ” found art where the ordinary is made precious by the authority of an artist, although in both cases there is a recognition of the “thisness” of the everyday. In found vernacular photography the artist’s authority is that they be ordinary, that the image be made as a sincere effort to document that person’s interests. Vernacular photography is necessarily not formally “precious”, but it is precious- as an artifact or byproduct of experience. As a document of someone’s way of life it has the scent of authenticity precisely because there appears to have been no larger agenda, no cultural program attached to the picture. No agenda and we take the picture to be “honest”.
How much distance does there have to be between the finder and the found thing for it to be worthy of being found, for it to be a found thing that is neither too familiar nor too foreign? With magazine and website Found, Davy Rothbart and his crew have collected thousands of contributions, including many pictures , that are humorous, poignant, powerful, and they are brilliant in setting the tone that allows the thing to be both familiar and strange at once. There are many collections of found photography on line, and a number of recent books. Lost and Found in America is a collection of pictures rejected by a Boston photo lab in 1968. Thomas Dworzak’s Taliban is a great example of a narrative built out of a thoughtfully collected body of images. Other People’s Pictures is a documentary about vernacular photography collectors made by some friends of mine, and they thoughtfully explore the appeal of found pictures. (After I photographed their wedding they gave me a found wedding album, which was actually kind of sad.)
My favorite website of vernacular photography is Square America . I love it not only because it is seemingly endless or because the images cover a huge chunk of 20th century American history, but because the pictures are unfailingly interesting. This is probably because of the hand of the site’s collector/ curator, and I appreciate his efforts to present entire groups of pictures. I don’t know how much he edits the selections but I find a lot of his groups intriguing, moving, beautiful.
I’m especially taken by two groups of pictuers taken off of TV screens in the 1950s and 1960s. One is an annotated collection of pictures of tv and film actresses , the other is pictures of coverage of JFK’s assassination . The tv is often visible as are parts of the room behind it. You’re at once aware of the TV as a window and as a barrier, of the electricity of it, and of the mediated images luminously transported into the private home with that electricity. And you see all that at the same time as you see something of what’s going on in the photographer’s mind, as they make pictures of something that matters. And now, thanks to Square America, we have these incredible documents that describe and evoke not only what was in the world, but also how it was perceived and how it mattered.