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.

Let me redeem the paradox here (or try to) by way of the late Roland Barthes’s famous concept of the punctum. (Barthes is the closest I get to critical theory these days.) Whenever we look at a photograph—or so Barthes suggested in Camera Lucida (1981), his beautiful, (sadly) valedictory book—our attention is often intercepted, bizarrely and unexpectedly, by some small wayward detail in the picture. A seemingly arbitrary element suddenly draws us toward it, perversely, as if by a kind of magnetism. Barthes calls such a detail the punctum, from the Latin for “point”: something that “pricks” the viewer or makes a small “wound” like a pinprick. The punctum is decidedly not something the photographer intended to capture, nor necessarily even noticed when framing and taking the picture. It has nothing to do with the “official” subject of the image. It can be (and typically is) something silly, slightly creepy, mildly irritating, or weirdly arousing: the point is, one can’t avoid noticing it.

Above all, the punctum is personal, quirky, bespoke—a smartingly subjective phenomenon. In locating it, you—the viewer—in some way also create it. It doesn’t exist without you. In turn, whenever you identify it, you can’t help (says Barthes) but “give [yourself] up.” You reveal something unscripted about yourself. It’s a bit like admitting to an erotic fetish—though one, comically enough, that you never knew you had till then. Barthes proffers numerous examples of the punctum—all culled from his own epicene history of looking—and it’s true: they are definitely on the kinky side. One of the freakier ones involves a 1958 Duane Michals portrait of Andy Warhol in which Warhol poses girlishly with his hands covering his face. Such a pose, as Barthes notes, might be presumed to say a great deal about the artist and his elusive art-world persona. Yet what invariably fixes Barthes’s gaze—and the spasm of bathos is both characteristic and charming—is the “slightly repellent substance” of Warhol’s “spatulate” fingernails. The nails are there, they are repellent, and Barthes can’t take his eyes off them.

TMI, Roland? Possibly—but the poetics of the punctum nevertheless. As well as a salient instance of authorial truth-telling. Now I should stress that the Wigged One’s gelatinated finger ends have always left me un-“pricked.” But there’s something in Barthes’s confession that nonetheless resonates, quite apart from any voyeuristic curiosity one might feel about Barthes himself. However paradoxical, the author’s claim that even as one looks at a photograph, one imports something of oneself into it—smuggles in some errant yet revealing piece of the psyche—strikes me as both plausible and potentially illuminating.

I am tempted to say that what attracts me to any given image, keeps me looking at it, and may ultimately prompt me to acquire it, is in fact an eccentric version of the punctum. Some element in the picture seems so familiar—so uncanny and unnerving in its immediate emotional pertinence—that it’s as if I had put it there myself. Collecting pictures of strangers, oddly enough, would then be a way of accessing these fugitive elements of the self—of preserving them, as it were, for future study. The more images you have in your collection, the more of yourself, conceivably, you have to ponder.

All very paradoxical, of course, not least because one is so often tempted to explain one’s collecting—even to oneself—as a sign of one’s curiosity about other people. Strangers put us on alert, unsettle us, at times in a manner to tweak one’s metaphysical composure. We want to “place” them, get the rundown. Thus even when one scrutinizes a very old picture, about which no information will ever be forthcoming, certain questions never­theless still come to mind unbidden. Who is this person? What’s his name? Is she still alive? When was this picture taken? What exactly is that person doing? Where is he? Where is she? What country are we in? Whose dog is that?

The hope seems to be that if you look long enough you’ll recognize the stranger, learn all their secrets, and maybe even be recognized in turn. To have all the details at hand, one imagines, would bring some deep, schmaltzy, humanistic satisfaction—make one feel on top of things. Confirm one’s membership in the Family of Man.

But if Barthes is correct about the subjectivity of our responses, what you’re really doing is organizing a meet and greet for phantoms, and you’re the guest of honor. You’ve selected the photos in your collection because you find the people in them interesting—that’s the punctum doing its work—and you want to know why. Yet for better or for worse, no one will ever be able to explain it but you. The only knowledge to be gained here is self-knowledge—at once eccentric, partial, and (usually) embarrassing. Nothing more, in fact, than that Möbius-strip feedback one already has: the “data” produced by having endowed the ghostly people in one’s collection—chemically treated paper figments all—with one’s own memories, dreams, illusions.

One sort of guessed this, of course: that we’re all just making stuff up (otherwise known as the human condition). Constructing the fantasy. Projecting like mad. Yet such melancholy things acknowledged—sigh—one still wants to natter on about the pictures. And maybe, too, there’s a Barthesian booby prize to be had by doing so. Perhaps self-knowledge—even the weird microknowledge revealed by, among other things, the punctum—isn’t such a bad thing, now and then? Certainly people have been talking it up since the time of Socrates.

What follows is a small portfolio from my collection. I’ve prefaced each photo below with some homemade punctumology—i.e., everything I know about the people in the pictures. And, yikes, shock-horror: I find they’re mostly photographs of children or young adolescents—those brats I mentioned earlier. Is it because children have some kind of direct-line, high-speed rail service into our psyches? That they are our species’s punctum-prompters par excellence? Or is the latter simply a sentimental fantasy, an assumption I make because even after more than half a century, my own childhood still seems so neurotically present to me—glossier even than a freshly snapped JPEG? Up to you to decide.

 


Little Iodine


Little Iodine—not her real name, of course. (Little Iodine was a female Roller Derby star of the 1960s. My stepfather, Turk, once took me to see her cracking the whip with the L.A. T-Birds at the old San Diego Sports Arena.) Iodine association here no doubt prompted by the sickening, saturated, pinky-orange Kodachrome color of the girl’s dress: Enough to Stain One’s Eyeballs. So could this picture have been taken in San Diego, my hometown?  The ladylike teen on view here definitely reminds me of various icky “good girls” in ninth grade. Punctum? Only a tiny, relatively weak “prick” here: the feeling (which I hated) of cheap synthetic stretchy headbands like the one she’s wearing.  At her age I loathed “performing” my erstwhile pubescent femininity. By contrast, this future Chi Omega seems down with it. What to do, though, if you’re a girl-brute on roller skates, with acne and BO?

 


Plus Fours


Plus Fours—ah, much better: a B.O.Y. One longed to be one, of course—in illo tempore—though not one, perhaps, as prim and doleful as this fellow. Still, the clothing ensemble, you have to admit, has a classic preppie charm. Are those musical notes on his stockings? Now, granted, if you’re into the punctum, you’re not supposed to pay attention to “artistic” stuff a photographer does; your own psychic blather should drown out anything else. Who cares about artistry or technique? Hard not to appreciate, though, the way the picture-taker has lined up the edge of the boardwalk with the place on the kid’s legs where the plus fours end and the musical socks begin.  Obviously a lost work by Cartier-Bresson. Now if only the kid were more butch. Looks like he’s just been banished from the family compound: The Only Kennedy Male Who Liked Plus Fours More Than Girls.

 


That Oceanic Feeling


Freud’s term, of course. You remember: whenever you have that mystical-blissful, floaty, out-of-body feeling, Freud says you are actually “remembering” what is was like to be in utero. Now where exactly is Utero? In Utah? Punctum: sadly enough, due to my residual PTSD, this nice girl’s nostrils. Her pose reminds me, alas, of a nightmarish routine in which I was forced to participate when my mother made me take a synchronized swimming class at the YMCA. We all had to float, head to toe, in a long line, and everybody had to put her feet around the neck of the next girl down the line, forming a human chain. Then the lead girl did a sort of backflip, pulling the whole line backward and underwater as she did so. Presumably one then swam—swanlike and euphoric—to the surface. Yet even with a noseclip: ghastly beyond belief. You never knew when your head was suddenly going to be pulled underwater by the feet clamped around your neck. Chlorine cocktail time.

 


Young Lady in Macramé with Cigarette


Almost too much Punctumatata to take in here. The way the angle of the Young Lady’s right index finger parallels that of her cigarette. (Also: how the “pointing hand” itself recalls the sporty handgun gesture of little Lynndie England in the Abu Ghraib pictures.) The heavy frames on the glasses of the redheaded admirer. The hair on the detached leg in the left foreground. The odd chaotic positions into which the redwood loungers have been shoved . . . Ahem, excuse me, but aren’t you missing something? Um, oops. When I bought this ultrabizarre 1970s snapshot a few months ago, I thought the gal was licking an ice cream cone. Loved that fact and the totally depraved eye contact she was making. Only when scrutinizing the picture much later did I see what she was doing—something still too traumatic for me to put into words.

 


Fake Screams


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.

 


Great Balls of Fire


Oh dear, it was bound to happen. So embarrassed I don’t know what to say. This is indeed a picture of myself; somehow it got stuck in here. Yes, it was as awful as it looks. Worse than the synchronized swimming. The only consoling element was getting to wield the big, blue-labeled LP. Can’t read the label, alas—otherwise it would obviously be the punctum. I pretend to myself now it was Jerry Lee Lewis—sign of my staggeringly advanced musical taste as a four-year-old. Jivey. But I fear it was Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Balls-out rockabilly came much later.

 


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.

 


Autoeroticism 


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.

 


Wisps


I take it all back. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be a girl if one had been as cute as this? No punctums allowed. Sheer scrummy treacle, if not Icky Poo Yum Yum.

 


Danses Hongroises


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.

 


A Nymphet


Nabokov obviously right all along. This kohl-eyed little girl: the Marchesa Casati of the 1940s prepubescent set. Nine years old and already utterly decadent. Sleeps with a bejeweled boa constrictor. Family money all from Roller Derby. The punctum: the fetishistic little buckle on her dress. Similar to one often worn, with spangled tights, by Little Iodine, mentioned earlier.

 


Fall of Nanking 


Hard to make stupid jokes about this gorgeous snapshot. One wonders what happened to this small cherub-aviator of 1938. For me the punctum here is pretty subtle: the lovely tender angle at which the decorative stone pillar seems to lean into the child, and vice versa. What does history hold in store for any of us?

 


The Viewfinder 


Okay, I love this picture, too. It’s so refreshingly not a Diane Arbus photo. Thank God! No cretins or circus freaks. Instead, the mother: sane and nice and breezy. The child: happy and secure and intelligent. The suburbs: wonderful and safe. The grass: needs cutting, folks! Maybe with one of those edger things they have at Ace Hardware. And then, of course, the Viewfinder. Hold it up to your eyes and see the punctum everywhere.

 


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.