Other People’s Photographs

Posted in Uncategorized by Joachim Schmid on Juni 21, 2011

I have been looking at and working with found photographs for about thirty years. This started as a form of naive fascination. I am fascinated by the direct, straightforward way a snapshot is a snapshot, it doesn’t pretend to be something different. I’m fascinated by the utilitarian quality of a product shot. It shows a pair of shoes, a door handle, a rocket or a spare part for a harvester, and it doesn’t pretend to do more. A photo of a sofa made by the commercial hack is a photo of a sofa and not a promise of a night in white satin after a cocktail at sunset.
Millions of photographs have been produced every day but only a small portion have been visible for most of us. There’s hidden treasure everywhere. Imagine a large international exhibition of artless photographs of sofas – I’d love to see this but it will probably only happen in my imagination. The photographs are there, more than we need. Exploring the endless universe of vernacular photography is a Sisyphean task. Imagine happy workers.
For a while I was wondering what types of photographs are collected in museums, and more important, what is not collected. The museum is the institution that produces the knowledge of future generations. Taking into account that photography has been one of the crucial techniques of modern culture, most museum collections must be considered to be complete failures. No sofas but majestic landscapes and exquisite portraits. The crown jewels tell us only a small portion of the truth about our culture. If you wish to get a better understanding of the whole, you have to look at the shelfs in the supermarket and at people’s trash bins.
For this reason I started the project Pictures from the Street, an ongoing and unedited collection of all photographs I have been finding in public spaces since 1982. Most of these snapshots and identity photographs are obviously not lost but intentionally thrown out, many are crumbled or ripped up. These pictures must be so bad and so disturbing that their owners decided to part with them; no future but oblivion. A lot of emotion and energy goes into the destruction of these pictures, and this energy is preserved in the bits and pieces found in the street. We get an idea of the role of photography in everyday life when we look at the pictures people have in their wallets. Looking at the ones that were banned from the wallet is even more interesting. As a series, these pictures represent the other half of the photographic truth, one of the parts neglected by the museum.
There’s more. Due to a misunderstanding, I got my hands onto the complete archive of a small town High Street photo studio in 1990. The photographer was lookig for an opportunity to dispose of his accumulated prints and negatives in an environmentally sound way. I was looking for raw material for my photo recycling works – a perfect match. I assume the photographer wanted to prevent that his photographs are being re-used, and for this reason the boxes I received contained nothing but ripped up prints and negatives that were cut into halves. Unknowingly and unintentionally the person who must have spent days with chopping photographs had done me a favour. I looked at the shreds, took the left part of one negative, the right part of another negative, and the rest was work.
If you have a few of these studio portraits you probably look at the faces, haircuts, fashion; if you are not familiar with the person depicted, chances are the individual photo is not too interesting. If you have some hundred portraits, you start to see patterns. If you have several thousands, you see nothing but pattern. Whatever you learned about portraits as representations of human beings does not apply. It’s nothing but mass production without the tiniest bit of creativity, originality, individuality: standard light, the same distance, identical poses – click and next. Surprisingly the repetitive, quasi industrial quality of these photographs turns out to be more ostensible when they are chopped. They are no longer photographic entities but bits of information; these bits were then re-combined into portraits of non-existing persons, incarnations of patterns, Photogenetic Drafts.
The vast majority of photographs represent patterns, both in professional and in amateur photography (in art photography, too). In the 1980s and 90s I assembled hundreds of panels for my Archiv series, each one focusing on one particular type of photograph – an ironic taxonomy of popular photography. Many of the photographs used for this project were bought at flea markets, and that was one of the project’s limitations. There’s a limited number of photographs available at these markets, and most of them were made several decades ago. Working with these pictures, one is always one or two generations behind one’s own time. But even with these limitations both the repetitive nature and the aspect of quantity were paramount.
Then we got the Internet and digital cameras. Quantity is no longer the right word, we deal with mega-quantity, giga-quantity, add the next prefix next week. But quantity isn’t the only thing, much more important is that large portions of the photographic production are accessible now. Not that long ago photographs were stored in people’s houses in albums, boxes and envelopes or in a company’s archive or in the photographer’s barn, and most of it was accessible only for a very limited number of people. Most photographs were not visible for most of us. Now they are, for everybody, or to be more precise: for everybody who has Internet access. We can be at nearly any place in the world and look at the photographs that were made earlier the same day at a different place in the world. We can also look at the photographs that were hidden in archives not long ago, we can look at photographs that leaked from governmental files, we can look at the imagery produced by webcams. There are more images added to the pile every minute than we can look at in a lifetime. And again, it’s not only quantity. We can watch how new models and patterns emerge – in real time. Watching the stream of uploaded photographs we see new patterns that spread like viruses – an unprecedented pleasure.
Online photo hosting created the largest pool of photographs ever, accumulated in just a few years. My book project Other People’s Photographs draws on this source. Assembled between 2008 and 2011, this series of ninety-six print-on-demand books explores the themes presented by modern everyday, amateur photo­graphers. Images found on photo sharing sites such as Flickr have been gathered and ordered in a way to form a library of contemporary vernacular photography in the age of digital technology. Each book is comprised of images that focus on a specific photo­graphic event or idea, the grouping of photographs revealing recurring patterns in modern popular photography. The approach is encyclopedic, and the number of volumes is virtually endless but arbitrarily limited. The selection of themes is neither systematic nor does it follow any established criteria — the project’s structure mirrors the multifaceted, contradictory and chaotic practice of modern photography itself, based exclusively on the motto “You can observe a lot by watching.”

Joachim Schmid
June 2011

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