When I was young, I turned the heavy pages of family photo albums. Here were pictures of my mother in a suit of armor, of my father in the backyard cradling a baby. When I was older, in a flea market I sifted through yellowing, sometimes browning photographs of faraway landscapes or bathers wearing cat-eye glasses. One set of images I could locate within the margins of my life; the other was loaded with histories I could only guess at.
A trove of printed photographs feels nothing like clicking through a photo album on Facebook. There, you move your mouse across the computer screen, seeing tidy little name tags under each face and the same poses over and over: Solo cups in hand, forced smiles. Two years ago, 174,000 photos were being uploaded to Facebook every minute, 7.5 billion photos every month. There aren’t even 7.5 billion people on Earth.
How many physical photographs exist? To make one of these images once took an expensive analog camera with an adjustable lens and 35-millimeter film with sprocket holes that was developed and printed. Even back when disposable flash cameras and Polaroids dominated every soirée, 7.5 billion photographs a month hardly seems feasible.
At the flea market, I know nothing about where these photographs came from. Were they all taken by the same person or cobbled together from different estate sales? I couldn’t tell if a picture of a weeping willow was in Louisiana or Indonesia. In the photograph above (salvaged by book cover designer John Gall and collected in one of his many blog posts on found photography), are the two men waving or blocking the sun in their eyes? There is something beautiful about this lack of context. Each new photograph feels as serendipitous as the next song that comes up in an old jukebox at an unfamiliar bar.
FOUND Magazine delivers this brew of surprise and beauty with every new issue it publishes. Since its start 12 years ago by Davy Rothbart and Jason Bitner, it has grown from a set of Kinkos-printed, hand-stapled ‘zines to a full-fledged magazine with a sizable circulation, a website of its own and loyal fans, such as actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, news anchor Rachel Maddow and musician Frankie Biggz.
The man who keeps FOUND’s gears turning, Al McWilliams, shares with me the magazine’s most infamous photograph: an old woman walking obliviously past a naked man in bed. [NSFW]
“This is a photograph though, implying with a fair amount of certainty that there is also a photographer,” McWilliams explained. “It's that extrapolation that I believe makes FOUND items so catchy and doubly so with the photographs. There's a balance between information and imagination that allows you to actually interact with the truth (which is really weird and rare).”
On the back of the photograph, “come into our world” had been written. But even that shred of information isn’t enough to complete the imagined story.
“That's when you sit down with your friends and try with great joy and eventual frustration to figure out what the fuck was going on in that gramma pic.”
Looking at so many pictures from someone else’s life feels, well, voyeuristic. In issue seven of FOUND, founder Davy Rothbart interviewed Rachel Maddow, who had come across rain-stained photographs while waiting outside a women’s prison in Alabama. When asked about the appeal of finding such personal images, she confessed: “There’s a power to reading [or seeing] something intimate that’s also anonymous. You don’t know who the person is that’s written something, so it’s easier to see [it] as a reflection of the human condition.”
“I like the immediacy of photography,” declares art collector and occasional lover of found photos David Raymond. “I love work that challenges the way I see the world.” For him, a piece of art is a palpable artifact of the 20th century and deserves to be treated as such. “You need to touch, to smell, I won’t go so far as to say taste, but you’ve got to get your senses involved. Every picture, even of the same image, has its own personality, its own nuance.” This insistence on a photograph’s physical presence is an unexpected rebuke to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on the work of art in the age of its mechanical reproduction: “From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.”
A found photo, however, cannot be reproduced from even the original negative because, well, it can’t be discovered. Even looking at the pages of FOUND Magazine isn’t nearly as thrilling as holding the same picture in your hand. Each of these images — the men holding up their hands, the notorious “gramma pic” — exist within particular contexts. When Al McWilliams told me about the photograph, I could only imagine what it had been like for him to see that actual glossy rectangle, sifted out of the hundreds of images that arrive every day at FOUND’s offices in Ann Arbor.
Photos from flea markets or consignment shops have their own context. They’re transformed from humdrum family pictures into relics from an unknown place and time, ready to be bestowed with significance by their new owners and viewers. These prints enable new stories to be told. In discovering found photographs, we feel the need to create stories for these images out of the lives we have already lived. And so these stray photographs become extensions of ourselves, unreproducible.