Andrew Flamm & Michelle Hauser | Essays

Folk Photos

Girl Double Exposed, 1940s, 3 1/2 x 3 14/15 in.

Photography’s inception in 1839 planted seeds that not only germinated into a new art form in the hands of professional photographers, but also quickly took root within the general population. While some traditional mediums of folk art, notably American folk portraiture, began to disappear by the last quarter of the 19th and the early 20th centuries, the new medium of photography produced a new and vigorous growth of imagery. With the invention of the easy-to-use camera, amateur photography was embraced by all walks of society. It budded and continued to flower throughout the twentieth century with such intensity that our collective output bears more resemblance to an overgrown garden than a fertile field. It is with great care and a true love for the material that we present this carefully pruned and cultivated selection of anonymous images.

Headless Man, 1920s, 3 3/16 x 4 2/16 in.

During the 20th century, the experience of “taking pictures” or “having our picture taken” became ubiquitous. It is precisely because of our own intimate knowledge of snapshots that we find relevance so easily in other people’s photos. All of us have bought rolls of film, initiated shots, posed for pictures, joked with the photographer; at other times we have protested, or shied away from the lens. We wanted photographs commemorating everything: a flat tire, candles on a birthday cake, a view out a plane window, a TV screen recording the Apollo moon landing.

Throughout the last century, snapshots have played an integral part in forming our cultural and personal identities. Most of us have a cherished collection of personal snapshots. Our emotional response to photographs tends to become intertwined with what we remember about the events in question. The distinctions become blurred. Anonymous snapshots so strongly resemble our own lives and dreams because our modern memories are often sculpted by our own collections of everyday photos.

Overcoming the disparity between what we remember and what the pictures tell us can be jarring. Typically, the delay between taking the pictures and seeing the photos stoked our expectations. We were relieved and elated when the pictures “turned out,” affirming our attitudes towards the people, events and places depicted. At other times, our memory, self-image and imagination were tested. Unflattering pictures, and often entire rolls of film, were disappointing. Landscapes no longer looked majestic. The prints were over — or underexposed, the focus wasn’t sharp, someone closed their eyes and “ruined” the picture, the camera strap cut across the lens, the film did not advance, or intended subjects were only partially visible in the frame. We longed to see something captured on film, and very often, the images we shot fell short.

The willingness to search through thousands of anonymous snapshots seems to gratify something in the genetic code. We quench our hunter-gatherer thirst in this vast and satisfying editorial act. Rarities that provide life-affirming sustenance lie hidden in thousands of everyday photo albums and boxes. Images strike a chord in us as art because they reinforce something we recognize as belonging to us, something that up until now had not yet crystallized. Of course, we can’t know what the original photographers wanted. We are as unequipped to telegraph those intentions, in fact, as their own cameras were. We are the lens.

Freed from the photograph’s original context, we now can make associations into any canon we prefer. Sometimes we draw on references to other art forms and forge a connection there. The image out the plane window affirms our aesthetic interest in minimalism, for instance, the cabin assuming a rich black hue while the window floats, a hazy white rectangle. The thumb across the lens is now an element of chance that changes a predictable landscape into a dynamic abstraction — one with an almost-unrecognizable view. The photographs themselves suggest other approaches. Sometimes we hone in on our sense of the absurd. Pictures of our fellow citizens make us laugh out loud. Humor and antics performed in front of the camera translate timelessly from one decade to the next.

Just as poignant — and perhaps more startling, are the accidental references to history we find in these photos. The deckle edge framing a three-and-a-half-inch-square black-and-white print is as emblematic of the nineteen-fifties and sixties as that era's hair styles came to be. Within that framework, details in found images become crucial. Bland aluminum siding in a background of a photo imparts a remarkable contrast to the gaze captured in a young woman’s face. Moments in everyday lives, seized through luck or through intention, offer iconic portraits of our time. We discover a profoundly personal and idiosyncratic criteria for collecting other people's pictures. Any great art, once fully engaged in, forces us to cross a line. We look at the world differently, forever. The onset of the digital revolution has made the period for using film finite. Processed prints are becoming obsolete. With the immediate option of discarding an unintended image, a rich library of our unselfconscious selves will no longer be recorded. But it lives here, in these beautiful, poetic and tactile objects.

Photo Statues, undated.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History, Photography

Comments [6]

Wow! Great stuff!

Was just talking the other day about my fascination for looking into windows. Just want to see "what's inside."

Am I the only one? (Red face.)

Check this out. (Don't miss the "snapshot gallery.")

Joe Moran

Or the trailer! Whoops!

Joe Moran

Oh, I love looking at old family photographs. A few years ago I came into possession of a suitcase full of old photographs from my grandmother's younger days and my father's childhood. Some of them are strangely artistic. I remember one from my aunt's first holy communion ceremony -all of the kids lined up walking to the church, the boys in suits and the girls in white dresses- and my aunt is only one looking at the camera.

I saved a few of those photos, and now they're framed and hanging on my wall.
Design Benign

There's a photographer who collects old cameras and develops the film he finds in them. Truly haunting.

Design Benign: "I came into possession of a suitcase full of old photographs from my grandmother's younger days and my father's childhood... I saved a few of those photos"

As someone who collects/cherishes old photos I shudder to think what happened to the rest of them.


I started collecting old photos when I was back-packing around S.E. Asia. Much easier to carry, more affordable and more interesting than most tourist trinkets one gathers on a long trip. Pocket-sized cultural anthropology. When I opened a restaurant years later I decorated the place with them.

if you like, take a gander at the work of joseph cornell. his boxes are great and also, you may enjoy a film of his by the name of A LEGEND FOR FOUNTAINS.


Michelle Hauser and Andrew Flamm are partners in Odd Fellows Art and Antiques in Mount Vernon, Maine. An exhibition of their folk photographs is on view at Washburn Gallery in New York through July 27.

Jobs | July 13