Lost and Found Visuals: The Art and Value of Vernacular Photography
Collectors of found photography look for scenes from a bygone era with mini narratives to imagine.
The old photograph was pasted into a scrapbook and had crusty brown rubber cement seeping around the edges. The image was a little girl with a sneaky smile and dark bangs, peeking out of the paneled window of a white frame house. Her tiny finger subtly pointed to the ominous city quarantine sign on the front porch: “Warning! Mumps Within.” This child from the 1950s seemed to be thinking, “I’m not sick; I’m famous!”
Vernacular photographs (sometimes called found photographs) are those made by amateur unknowns who accidentally created something artistic or thought provoking out of the mundane and ordinary. Their pictures aren’t just of poses or landscapes; they are little slices of history with unidentified characters and a forgotten backstory. They are everyday snapshots with absurd twists—but they also represent a time of bygone innocence and nostalgia. It has become a fast-growing collectible area because it has all the elements hobbyists love: long searches through flea markets and estate sales, inexpensive purchase prices and always the possibility of finding a great treasure.
Why are there two ghosts in this vintage photo when nobody else is dressed in costume? And who is the goggle-eyed man showcased in front? Collectors of found photography love a mystery. This scratched photo pasted to album paper sold for $25 in July 2014.
Ever since Kodak released the first personal box camera in 1888 (marketing its one-button simplicity and targeting it to women and children), millions of novices have recorded images of extended families, vacations, friends, special events and holidays. Because these untrained shutterbugs were simply creating spontaneous memories, their unintended artistry can be all the more captivating.
What do collectors look for? Personal interests vary, but the key element is always something that sparks the imagination. Snapshots of leisure suits, street vendors, billboards, Halloween costumes, pink Cadillacs, beefcakes, UFOs, band uniforms and bad haircuts abound. But which ones ask unanswered questions? Which ones intrigue? Value is placed on condition and uniqueness, and buyers should be aware that many exceptionally unusual photographs have been digitized and reproduced en masse for sale on the Internet.
This 3-inch photo of the back of General Meade’s Civil War headquarters at Gettysburg was developed as a blue-tinted cyanotype. The unknown photographer’s shadow can be seen in the image, a common amateur mistake. It sold for $50 in 2013.
Prized vernacular imagery can be much more than just retro artifacts or people acting goofy. Old photos of famous sites that have changed significantly in appearance are historically important, especially if professional photos from that time period do not exist. And photographic techniques that are now out of vogue are also desired because common items can become inadvertently abstract by those methods. Fans of folk and outsider art are also drawn to vernacular photographs, so museums and galleries have taken note, with many artistic exhibits of themed and personal collections on display in recent years.
Purveyors of found photographs know that the sensational sells. Auction galleries have recently featured vintage scrap albums full of mug shots, paranormal images, scenes of alternative lifestyles and graphic post-mortems. Online auctions offer crime scene photos and unflattering shots of nude girlfriends. Most of these photos were taken decades ago and the subjects are now unknown, but the intrusion could be disquieting if you stumbled upon a 50-year-old photo of yourself or a loved one.
An undated shot from the collection of Marc Boone Fitzerman dramatically poses many unanswered questions. It was displayed at the Tulsa Philbrook Museum’s “Unexpected” photography exhibition in May 2014.
Although it is open to some debate, most people feel that vernacular photography does not include social commentary by master photographers who used special lenses and lighting. Diane Arbus is famous for her portraits of surreal personalities, Walker Evans photographed symbols of the Great Depression and Lewis Hine is known for his haunting documentation of child laborers. Works by these artists have been widely published. They can be found unsigned, but they are neither amateur nor anonymous. Other emerging professionals are cashing in on the trend and purposely searching for bizarre elements of common humanity to record. Their work is certainly artistic, but the difference is that it is intended. The lines of definition do remain blurred. In the end, a vernacular photograph can be just what you want it to be.
Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.
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