Postage stamps, bottle caps, teeth, fast food toys, stuffed creatures, hair, medical oddities, coins, trading cards, clothing, and barbed wire; it’s no secret that humans are collective creatures.
I started collecting vernacular photography about 3 years ago when I discovered a take in a secondhand store. I purchased the photograph and hung it up on my bedroom wall, unable to shake the haunting connection I felt.
A sepia-toned man gazing into the camera as he smokes, a woman sitting adjacent to him, with “Sunday-3-27-22-” written across the top. Motion blur obscures the woman’s head. The paper is worn but intact, priced at $2.
200+ photographs from conventions, local sellers and friends later, I found myself picking select kinds of images that pulled at my soul like the first. I like portraits with decorative borders and the locations of studios, cats in people’s outdated houses and women standing proudly. The best way I can describe this feeling is sentimentality; the feeling of my chest hurting from relating to these individuals photographed, the feeling of not being alone on this earth and a morbid understanding of generations. I hope one day, when I’m gone, someone will find photographs of me that old lovers have thrown out, stealing me because $2 is too steep for one photo.
I paused collecting for a few months when I found a ziplock bag full of a man’s every identifying factor. His social security card, a picture of who I assumed to be his partner, a military dog tag, receipts and more were inside the bag. This tipped me into the range of over-understanding my temporary placement as a decaying human on this earth. I still can’t make out how it left me feeling. The fuzzy afterimage of the contents as I placed it back on the shelf is all I have. Part of me had guilt for not taking it home, but the other part told me I wasn’t meant to take care of him.
When I resumed collecting, I started searching online for larger collections of work. Researching accurately dating vintage photography and making zines about collecting, I ended up finding an eBay listing from an older man. He posted a binder full of slides from his great uncle-in-law’s travels throughout the years.
“We inherited slides from my wife’s great uncle. He traveled all his life and all over the world. There are slides from every continent except Antarctica. National Parks in the 1950s, a cruise from Duluth Minnesota through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. Canal Boats, Vintage airplanes, and amazing vintage cars. There are touristy shots, amazing landscapes and some wonderful pictures of street scenes. Berney was an artist who worked in a photographic unit during world war II. He was a skilled photographer. A few of the slides were commercially produced and purchased to supplement his famous slide shows. Almost all the slides are kodachrome and have been archivally stored. They are in great shape. Some of the Ektachrome slides have begun to fade.”
When I received the package a few weeks later, I got exactly what I had hoped for. An array of waterfalls, architecture, the North Korean border and repeating faces. Some locations I’d seen with my own eyes. It felt like staring into a portal of my past blended with his. I began to assemble every photo in my collection with something that I directly related to. Over time, I realized that I was collecting a scene of my life. My photographs depicted my wants, my daydreams, my desires and my traumas through unconscious sentimental connection. When I think of my personal human experience, I think of the joy gained through the memories I’ve found in my spanning collection.
Although he is gone and does not know; his photography is admired, sorted, scanned and archived in my personal collection. I believe my understanding of people and relationships is viewable through my photographs. They depict connection, memory, body language, and the beautiful gruesome life that we humans live.
Lifespans documented in photographs are impactful as they speak to the complexity and richness of the human experience. They remind us of the many challenges and opportunities that come with being a social, thinking, and feeling creature in a complex and rapidly-changing world. Seeing physical reminders of the past in photographs provides the morbid sense of understanding that the world is moving, our time is fleeting, and ultimately supposed to decay. Take time to cherish what the dead have left behind and make sense of lived experiences through a lens of others’ memories entangled in your own.
How special is it to connect with what someone else once did?
Check out some of my favorites from the lot: