How do you assign value to an anonymous photograph in an art market obsessed with names and proprietary rights? Located on the first floor of the ArtCraft building in the St. Clair/Superior Quadrangle Arts district, the Cleveland Print Room’s recent exhibition, Lost & Found: Vernacular & Found Photography, addressed this issue. Featuring photographs by artists (or, more precisely, amateur photographers) Lost & Found: Vernacular & Found Photography focused on individuals—artists and their subjects—whose names remain relatively unknown to us.
Although the genre of vernacular photography has morphed throughout the years, its roots remain the same. Vernacular photographs include snapshots of family vacations, prom dates, or homes lining a street where children play. Once captured in black and white on photographic paper, vernacular photography is now stored on our cellphones and tinted through technology on Instagram. Images from our grandparents’ lifetimes, once meant to exist only within the personal realm of their owner, have been “found” and repurposed as art objects valued for their design versus the memories they once conjured.
“When people started getting cameras into their hands, that was when vernacular photography was created,” explains Shari Wilkins, founder and director of the Cleveland Print Room. “People were just documenting the mundane, their everyday life, and they didn’t really know that what they were doing was interesting or would ever be considered art. I think that’s what makes it even more interesting and exciting; they weren’t trained. It was all self-taught in a sense that they weren’t even trying to be self-taught.”
The found snapshots of everyday life recently on display at the Cleveland Print Room, a gallery and community darkroom, exist at the intersection of outsider and folk art, amassed by informed collectors who curate sets of images culled from their own personal curiosities.
“I got this at Cindy Deering’s place on West 25th Street, in one of her fishbowls for 50 cents or a dollar,” Wilkins noted, pointing to one of the works she contributed to the exhibition from her collection—a small, suggestively gruesome photograph of a slide depicting veins and fluid. A hand written note describing the specimen was scrawled onto the glossy paper around the image in faded ink.
“I know people collect these slides, this scientific photography, […] I know a collector who collects hand photos; I know a collector who collects adverted glances or hands in front of eyes. Then there’s the gay interest category, and there are reflections,” she continued, pointing to the works framed and displayed in front of us—checking off a list of categories that reflected the personal tastes and idiosyncratic interests of collectors. “Then there’s just, you know, the weird,” Wilkins added.
Bringing together the collections of thirteen distinguished dealers and collectors of found photographic images, Wilkins’ connection to this subculture—one dedicated to finding beauty in unexpected places—led her to curate an exhibition that was instructive for the Print Room’s members, students and visitors. It presented a dynamic display of wide-ranging techniques and photography’s development through various eras, including Polaroids, 1960’s and 70’s color prints, hand colored postcards from the 1920’s, excerpts from a family album, 1890’s era portraits of American farm life, and newly enlarged prints of discarded black and white negatives.
The contributing collectors to Lost & Found were from throughout the country; they purchase extensively within the United States and Europe, all the while looking for lost images that appeal to themselves and hopefully, others as well.
Robert E. Jackson, whose photography collection was displayed as part of Lost & Found, is at the forefront of defining the vernacular photo genre as a distinguished field. Featured in several books, Jackson’s collection was the subject of a 2007 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Dr. Barbara Tannenbaum, Curator of Photography at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Nigel Maister, Artistic Director of the University of Rochester’s International Theater Program, and various other collectors and dealers also displayed portions of their collection at CPR.
Though the photos themselves are artifacts from the past, questions surrounding collection practices and the sale of vernacular photography are distinctly contemporary. Recently these issues have come to the forefront as demand for the genre increases.
In April, Swann Auction Galleries in New York, which has established its reputation as the largest specialist auctioneer of works on paper, sold for the first time several folios from their Photographs & Photobooks Department deemed to be “venerable vernacular material” for $13,000 to $22,500. “That is huge,” Wilkins noted, “because it validates the worth of [vernacular and found photography]. That it is something to be collected and it is worthy of us, at our photography gallery, to start selling and recognizing it.”
Kitsch family albums and dated snapshots are plentiful at estate sales, vintage shops and Mid-western flea markets, where even novice photo collectors can find mementos or antiquated albums for pennies, purchasing these from “pickers,” with whom with they play a nuanced game to acquire their finds for the right price.
Perusing the exhibition at CPR, I couldn’t help but wonder why and what exactly gives these images their value. “These were from a scrapbook that a picker wanted $1,300 to $1,500 for, and at the time, I didn’t have the money to do that,” Wilkins recalled. “He let me go through and pull out what I wanted, […] I only got what I thought was really interesting. It wasn’t just photographs [in the albums], it was ephemera. When [the Wallick Family] went somewhere they saved ticket stubs, and they traveled all over the country. There were about fifteen scrapbooks from this family, this circus family.” In recounting this, Wilkins exchanged glances with gallery manager, Jeff Curtis, in shared disbelief of the Wallick family’s fabulous lives, so charmingly captured by their own lens.
Yet, to Wilkins, it isn’t necessary to know who the subject or the photographer is when it comes to found photography. Even if we do not know the author or subject of each image, the aesthetic intrigue remains despite this lack of specific context. “It definitely lends some mystery to it. You don’t know the real story,” Curtis noted. Wilkins concurred adding that, “In a lot of cases you don’t know anything, and you just have to assign a meaning.”
Found photographs also helped structure meaning in the most recent exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s west side satellite gallery, the Transformer Station. Laura Ruth Bidwell of the Bidwell Foundation and co-founder (with Fred Bidwell) of the Transformer Station, was gifted a part of the collection of Peter J. Cohen, a prominent amateur photography expert. Bidwell used photographs from Cohen’s gift to create an installation as part of Unknown: Pictures of Strangers. Here Bidwell juxtaposed actual found photos with images made by established photographers. While well-known photographers focused on making artworks based on images of strangers in culture at large, the found photographs in Cohen’s collection served as a reversal of that concept. Subjects once very important to each unknown photographer, were now also nameless. The concept of vernacular photography likewise inspired the new commissioned film installation by Tim Davis titled Transit Byzantium (2013), also currently on view at Transformer Station.
“People took photographs, in the late 80’s, mid 90’s, and they went to Walgreens, […] and developed them,” Wilkins has described. “You look at them, the paper, it’s already started fading, it’s digital, so there is a real big concern that there is not going to be anything that will stick.” Audiences are forced to re-examine the past not only here, but in many aspects of our 21st century existence. In a post Y2K world, there is a lingering fear that what is saved on our hard drives will have no physical manifestation and therefore may disappear without ever being recognized.
Another concern that surfaced during a panel discussion between the exhibition’s contributing collectors (moderated by Barbara Tannenbaum at the Print Room on August 23rd) addressed the problem of where these photographs would be housed when collectors pass on. Many have begun making plans for them already. “[Collectors] know that the museums, in general, do not want the work because it’s going to end up being stored somewhere,” Wilkins said. “That was a really big concern, that they didn’t want their collections to end up in the garbage, like where they found them.”
Today an increasing amount of artwork appears to challenge how technology allows its users to alter and imitate reality. Perhaps it is the uncertainty we feel when appreciating digital media that makes these photographs from the past so authentic. Amateur photographers of the past have opened a door for contemporary viewers to look at images that were never meant to impress an audience. The idea of looking for beauty in the undiscovered seems to be the real motivation for collecting found photographs.
The Cleveland Print Room will celebrate the opening of “Clarence A. Wilkins Uncovered: From Cairo, IL to New York, NY” on Friday, September 26th at 5 pm; the exhibition will continue through November 1st. The new exhibition presents Clarence Wilkin’s silver gelatin photos recently hand printed by Halim Ina and James Matthews along with digitally scanned and printed Kodachrome slides. Clarence A. Wilkins, an amateur photographer, likely never expected to see photographs that he created sixty years ago unveiled publically in the present day at a gallery. For more information see, http://www.clevelandprintroom.com
The Transformer Station has extended the exhibition Unknown: Pictures of Strangers through September 27, 2014. For more information see, http://transformerstation.org
Based in Cleveland, OH, Rachel Hunt is a grassroots music and arts event organizer and stay-at-home writer. View more articles by Rachel Hunt.