Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Found Photos

As a historian I naturally love photographs. And, as the cliche suggests, a picture can be "worth a thousand words." I remember visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year for a show of early French photographs, most of which had been taken between 1845 and 1855, the first decade for this revolutionary medium. And after recovering from the sense of awe precipitated by a realization that these photos showed people who lived 160 years ago, I was struck by how much each photo revealed when viewed as a distinct historical document . . . as if each photo was a handwritten letter, official document, or diary, which are usually the historian's primary source materials.

I mention all this because I recently revisited a website which I've followed for several years but haven't perused in some time. This site, "Look at Me: A Collection of Found Photos," includes over 600 images of ordinary people in snapshots from the early 20th century to about the 1970s. Most have no dates or additional information; a few possess scribbled notes that give some clue to their origin. Still, analyzing the mode of dress and the surroundings, one can often make a reasonable guess. From a structural standpoint they vary little from the everyday photos we take today: They show people at Christmas, on vacation, celebrating weddings or graduations, posing in front of new cars and new homes, and even mourning at funerals. Throw some present-day clothes on these people, and they could pass for inhabitants of 2007.

Yet the thing that makes me pause every time I visit "Look at Me" is that these are photos which were either lost, thrown away, or simply abandoned. In my antique shop and flea market days - before I had children - I would often see lots of photos for sale, lying about in boxes or languishing in albums. Inevitably I wonder, what happened to these people? How did their once treasured photos end up in a garbage bin or junk shop? Looking at the pre-1939 and pre-1914 photos of European origin, I always wonder how they fared in the approaching World Wars. Take, for example, this German family. Did this father survive the trenches of the Somme? Did the little girl live to see the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s and the destruction of Germany by 1945? Was there no family member left to claim these? Because we can never know the answers, I always approach these images with a touch of sadness.

From a technical standpoint, many of these photos are remarkably crisp, if not artfully posed. (Since when did our vacation snaps demonstrate attention to composition and depth of field?) If you're a fan of old cameras you'll recognize the footprints of old 6x9 and 6x6 formats, 127 and 626 film, and the creamy glossiness of slow 25 and 50 ASA films fed through Brownie cameras. In fact, many are probably contact prints from the negatives. There's the occasional early Kodak color print, the colors now fading, and the early Polaroids. A few, however, are quite charming, revealing an innocence we often wish to reacquire, the way we long to revisit - albeit briefly - moments of our own childhood experiences. I look at the images from the 1960s and 1970s and think, my, how long ago that seems. But they are the images of my childhood, the photos of Christmas 1968 with me at my grandparents' house sporting new cowboy boots, a holster and cap pistol, pulling a red wagon. Will my family's photos eventually make it to a flea market?

One thing I find troubling in all this . . . Here we have this great record, thanks to film. Where will we be 100 years from now, with most photos having been taken digitally? Sure, we save our favorites and print them, because people still enjoy having that tangible record to hold, pass around at family gatherings, and stuff into albums. But I'm afraid the digital photo will do to photgraphs what email has done to the handwritten letter. The film camera will become an anachronism, like the fountain pen and blotter.

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