Till Death Do Us Part

Found photographs fascinate me because they tell a truncated story. The images represent a single moment pulled from a larger, real-world narrative. But without any context aside from the information embedded in the image itself, or sometimes a handwritten caption on the back, the photograph almost always tells an unresolved story. This photograph of a young bride’s wedding day, pictured above, is a perfect example. We see a stoic father attempting to smile, the bride with eyes closed beside him. The mother smiles, but her gaze is distracted, fixed elsewhere from the lens. The young man, who may be the groom or perhaps the brother of the bride, stands in a military pose. Like reading the opening paragraph of a good story, I want to know more about these people and the circumstances of that day. But of course I never will, and that’s part of the strange allure of such images.

Found photography is often lumped together with found art, a movement that Marcel Duchamp spearheaded in the early 1900s with his readymades. But there seems to be something far different in found photography in terms of personal connection, which sets it apart from the work that Duchamp made using discarded bike wheels, urinals, and other objects. Filmmakers Lorca Shepperd and Cabot Philbrick make an important point about this personal connection and the appeal of found photographs in their documentary Other People’s Pictures, via NPR:

[Shepperd and Philbrick] interviewed collectors around Chelsea Flea Market in New York City and concluded that found photography hobbyists usually collect pictures for two reasons: they like eccentric images of people doing odd things or wearing funny clothing, or they have personal reasons behind their choices so the photo collection becomes a validation of their history. In the both cases the hobbyist’s reason becomes a unifying theme throughout his or her collection and this theme in turn becomes a way of looking at found photography. In this way it can be argued that found photography is art in the hands of professionals and amateurs alike.

The photograph of the young bride on her wedding day, pictured above, was found in the bottom of a bin at a Goodwill outlet center in Western Pennsylvania — a clearinghouse for all the Goodwill stores in that area. My wife and I have a mild obsession with these images. At estate sales and church rummage sales, used bookshops and thrift stores, we find these photographs on a regular basis. Often they are tucked as bookmarks in old novels, or donated to a charity shop — frame and all — with a family’s outdated clothing and children’s toys that no longer get played with. I’m always curious how and why a particular photograph gets discarded or left behind. Anytime I see a photograph of a young son or daughter on the shelf at a Salvation Army store, the kind taken on portrait day at an elementary school, I assume the worst. Maybe the parents no longer speak to this child, or maybe the child has died and having photographs around is too painful. I am also aware that the story may not be so morose. But it’s the unknown aspect of these images that compels me to pick them up each time that I find them.

(Photograph: Do Not Destroy; click to enlarge. Caption: Shotgun wedding.)