first published as the introduction to The Profound M by Tamsin Spencer Smith (San Francisco: FMSBW, 2021)
Reflections on the Art of Found Photography
by Matt Gonzalez
Introduction to The Profound M by Tamsin Smith, a book of found photos paired with poems, published by FMSBW in 2021.
Memory, which André Breton referred to as the Profound M, is the thread that consistently runs through the vintage snapshot photos in this book. These images trigger a compelling nostalgia. They unexpectedly connect us to the original subjects by virtue of a shared cultural experience. Despite not being directly related to our own personal histories, we’ve all gone fishing, or goofed off with friends at a wedding, or tried to hold a handstand in the sand at the beach. Even if we haven’t, we can still imagine that we might have, if given the chance. Thus, our memories become intertwined with these moments from someone else’s past.
Of course, these photographs are only “found” insofar as they have been dispersed after the original owner of the keepsakes, or the families who treasured them, were no longer able to store them safely. Set adrift by the happenstances of life — relocations, broken marriages, natural calamities, or even death — they’ve weathered estate auctions and storage locker misadventures to become lost relics picked through at a flea markets or garage sale. When we say found photography, we are essentially speaking of the recovery of otherwise discarded or unclaimed family mementos.
The original photographer, almost always unknown to us today, likely prized these images as defining personal artifacts. Even a snapshot taken hastily during a vacation would be returned to again and again in the ensuing years, evoking a remembrance of things, places, people, and events past. Once archived in photo albums, they would become talismans, integral to an individual or group’s perception of themselves. Memories not captured on film would fade far more quickly than those given outsized importance simply by virtue of having been preserved on film.
Sometimes these photos emphasize the mundane; a quick click of the camera while the subject was unawares. Other times, the protagonists strike a pose, one they might not have assumed had the camera not been aimed in their direction. As the presence of a camera can literally make things happen, it’s hard to separate a moment from the way in which it is portrayed on film. Sometimes it’s the photos that capture nothing much at all happening that pull the viewer in and spark the greatest possibilities for reflection.
Discussion with other collectors has fostered my belief in the value of these found photographs as contemporary art objects. Robert Flynn Johnson, curator emeritus of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, has published two important volumes of found photography (Anonymous: Enigmatic Images from Unknown Photographers. Thames & Hudson, 2004 & The Face in the Lens Anonymous Photographs. University of California Press, 2009). Johnson has noted in conversation that some of the particularly enigmatic photos survive because past generations revered the new technology of photography so much so that throwing away even bad photos seemed wasteful. It would have been counter to their frugal post-depression mindset to trash even the bungled shots. As a result, the choice to save outtakes allows a contemporary re-engagement with those errors. The artistic success of a partially overexposed, out of focus, or poorly cropped photo may now be considered as strikingly evocative because they couldn’t have been posed and perhaps can’t ever be replicated. Some of the best photos, those with the most intriguing and enduring aesthetic value, are the mistakes.
The Kodak Brownie, which is often credited as the original snapshot camera, made this technology accessible to hundreds of thousands of people. Although Eastman Kodak produced the first pocket cameras in the early 1890s, it wasn’t until the release of the less expensive Kodak Brownie that photography became accessible to a wider audience. Invented by Frank Brownell and introduced in 1900, the Brownie was a cardboard box camera with a meniscus lens that took square 2 ¼-inch inch photographs. Later models were made of bakelite and had improved lenses. Kodak’s early advertisement slogan emphasized how easy it was to use: You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.
While earlier pocket models were five times the price, the Brownie cost $1 ($30 in 2020 dollars), when first released. This affordable means of bringing photography to the masses was evidenced by the over 100,000 sold in its first year of production. Suddenly, everyone became an artist, even if their intent was more prosaic.
Later technology brought other innovations. The first widely distributed photo booth is credited to Russian emigree Anatol Josephewitz and appeared in New York City in 1925. For a single quarter, the device developed and printed eight photos in roughly 10 minutes. It was said to be so popular that over 250,000 people utilized the booth in its first six months. Capitalizing on its appeal, the Photomaton Company quickly distributed the new phenomena nationwide.
Polaroid’s first commercially-available instant camera, the model 95 Land Camera, came out in 1948. For the first time, more personal or intimate photos could be had without an embarrassing trip to the developer. Photos capturing nudity and drug paraphernalia became something that people, who didn’t have their own dark room, could generate themselves.
Found snapshot photography — sometimes referred to as “vernacular photography” by collectors — underscores that these photos often capture every-day, ordinary domestic moments. The sheer banality represented in some of these pictures is part of the special allure. With today’s social media, snapshots are ubiquitous, even those depicting random quotidian moments. Pressure to invent our lives and portray what may be faux happiness or stylized perfection results in most perceived errors getting deleted. This is one of the things that makes the vintage photographs, and their second life as art objects, so special.
These brief moments in time are augmented here by Tamsin Smith’s beautifully evocative poems. They are not meant to be literal, as if describing the action of the photograph; in fact, they would fail if they were to try. The poems offer a fresh way of looking at the photographs, an entry way into viewing their hidden mysteries. Since the meanings in the original photographs are nearly entirely obscured to us, Smith’s poetry suggests new narrative possibilities and alternative histories. In effect, Smith is taking her own snapshots through the medium of words, mixing in the material of her own stories and imagination. I see this foremost as a book of verse, accentuated by the inspiration of persons long gone, who captured and cherished poignant moments, just as we do today.
The photographs in this book come out of a larger collection I have assembled over the years. Some were found at flea markets, bookstores, and even found littered on city streets. Many were purchased directly from the dealers who have nurtured a sizable community of snapshot photography collectors. Robert Jackson, whose exceptional collection was exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 2007, in a show titled: “The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978: From the collection of Robert E. Jackson,” is the source of many of the photos contained herein. My gratitude is extended to him for his role in elevating these photographs into the American art cannon and encouraging my own engagement with them.
All but three of the photographs are anonymous. The exceptions are from Smith’s and my own family collections. Augmenting the grouping in this way makes the finished product even more personal for us and links the book to the 1977 Scrimshaw publication, “American Snapshots, Selected by Ken Graves & Mitchell Payne”, which I believe to be one of the earliest books featuring snapshot photography. That publication presented vintage snapshot photography chosen from family photo albums around the United States.
I have tried to include a variety of art forms here: the photo booth picture, the Polaroid, and even hand-colored photographs. What they share in common is that they make us ponder our own lives, working as springboards to our own memories, profound and otherwise.
To visit FMSBW books: Link here
To purchase The Profound M by Tamsin Smith: Link here