I've been collecting anonymous photographs for more than two decades now and probably own a thousand or so, in all kind of formats. Nineteenth-century tintypes and cyanotypes, cabinet cards and cartes de visite, turn-of-the-century RPPCs (Real Photo Postcards), disaster pix, police mugshots and Bertillon cards, photo-booth strips, deaccessioned newspaper photos (especially ones with white crop marks), old prom photos, not to mention a recently acquired batch of ratty, Nan Goldin–style, 1970s Polaroids. Should I be in rehab? Lately I’ve managed to put a small part of my collection into serious, made-for-collectors-type albums—the organic kind, that is, with acid-free archival sleeves and glassine pockets. You can get them in the kale and beets section at Whole Foods. But most of my pictures, alas, remain scattered about, secreted away in boxes and drawers and plastic bags, stuck into books, or else just hiding out somewhere in my house. Where, I’m not sure:
domestic life becomes ever more Grey Gardens–like. No more vintage photo shows, says spouse Blakey—nor will I be going anywhere near the eBay log-in page—until I unearth all the mute, two-dimensional Missing Persons already lurking somewhere in the downstairs closet.
As addictions go, collecting old photos of obscure provenance may be harmless enough. Indeed, the habit might seem easy to peg as one of the fast-expanding subdivisions of the Great American Nostalgia Industry—along with scrapbooking, rubber-stamping, collecting Pez dispensers or Barbies still mint in their boxes. Now that digital photography has made just about every older image-making process obsolete, even the prints and Polaroids of only ten or twenty years ago have begun to look quaint and vestigial. Collecting them is like dragging out one’s old Joy Division albums.
But in the case of a Mrs. Jones like mine—outsize, never lets up, a bit reckless—two questions would seem to arise. First, and most glaring, why would one want to own a closetful of pictures of people one doesn’t know? Second, assuming the desire is there, on what basis to choose them? Why pluck from obscurity, say, two or three examples out of a junk-store shoebox? It’s not as if the material artifacts themselves are always so appealing. At vintage-photo and ephemera fairs—like the ones I go to several times a year at the Hall of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park—you typically sift for hours through great grubby piles of the bent-cornered things. Many old photographs are greasy and unalluring to the touch: splotchy, soiled with multiple fingerprints, or sorely bashed about—the squalid detritus of a century’s worth of estate sales. Some appear to have had bites taken out of them. Yes, do take your little plastic bottle of hand sanitizer.
But the people in the pix can be fairly squalid, too. Querulous grandmothers; drunken Shriner gents in fezzes and sashes; gormless couples slumped on sofas; louts playing bingo, wearing silly hats, or pretending to pee. Endless nondescript people standing next to their Plymouth Valiants. Nineteen sixty-six—what a year. After a while your eyeballs pop out and just dangle there, inertly, on their stalks.
And children, so many children—most of them obnoxious-looking. It’s a fact: 99 percent of all photographs ever taken have little brats in them. Mugging, leering, pushing one another. Wielding fearsome Betsy Wetsy dolls. Pouting in pajamas on the floor over unsatisfactory Christmas presents. Prancing egotistically. The sort of kids that Wittgenstein, back when he was a mean, half-demented schoolmaster in the Austrian Alps or wherever it was—long before Cambridge and the Tractatus—would have walloped upside the head and thrown in the snow. How is it, indeed, that I have so many of them? More, even, than Joyce Carol Oates has written novels. And not one, needless to say, did I get for free. Depending on subject, age, and condition, good anonymous snapshots generally range in price from a dollar or two up to ten or twelve—not a huge investment, perhaps, but how quickly everything adds up.
Sometimes one wishes (in vain) one was a stork. How delightful to make this odious little urchin really squall. To have the elegant thin legs, too. And beaks, I’ve always thought, make one look aristocratic. Sibling rivalry: say no more.
1939 (From the Photo Booths)
Bought from my pal Miles at a vintage photo show: he had mounted this group of nine photo-booth snaps, provenance unknown, in the arrangement seen here. Which now drives me bonkers. Some of the pictures appear to be of the same girl. Or are they two different girls from the same family? But then are some of the pictures of different girls actually pictures of the same girl at different ages? The one in the image top right—no relation, presumably, to any of the others? Or is she also the kid at bottom right? What about “1939” and the girl just above her? Same girl, or her twin sister? The more I look, the less sure I am who anybody is. Lost in the crazy coils of sororal punctodelirium.
This one’s much easier: teen wankers all round. The coach is boffing the tall kid next to him; various brothers in the lineup have also been “experimenting.” Ah, the thrilling, pimple-butted, spurtatious world of boys! Only one downer-cow note: that short, homely, and moronic-looking one at the end of the row. Not even a budding beta-male—he’s already a zeta-male, poor kid. His weird black shoelace (no one else has one) is not only the punctum but the ineluctable sign of z-dom.
Children of the Corn Dept.
Back to girls, goddamn it. There’s got to be some way out of here. Still, on the plus side, this 1880s tintype is a wonderful example of what I have come to call the Nineteenth-Century Effect: the fact that everybody you encounter in pre-1900 photographs looks demented or like a zombie. This girl has it all going on: the preternatural, mad-eyed stare; the slightly crumbly, dead-baby look of her dress; the cheeks ever-so-delicately tinted with pink embalming fluid. Next stop, the asylum, followed by the morgue. Punctumatically speaking, one’s gaze is drawn to the winglike white ribbons on the hat: all-too oddly reminiscent, for those of a certain age, of the extraordinary billowy headgear worn by Sally Field in The Flying Nun.
Hey! I have an idea: lesbianism! I believe it was invented in Hungary, after all. So what about being the dykey one on the right here? Go back to the being-a-boy fantasy. Or at least think about becoming a male impersonator. Punctum? Would have to be the lovely frog closures on my mauve jacket.
Found My Missing Piece
Charlotte, The Paris Review’s art editor, thinks that the child in this old French postcard-photo is a boy. I had assumed it was a girl. Who knows? Either way it works. Dreamy.
To read the rest of this piece, purchase the issue.
Constantine P. Cavafy, In Despair
Jeff Dolven, Quarter
Forrest Gander, Body Visible
Paul Muldoon, Required Fields
Sharon Olds, The Haircut
Meghan O’Rourke, Pike's Peak
Brenda Shaughnessy, Liquid Flesh