In graduate school I rented a cheap two-bedroom house in desperate need of a paint job and an inside-out cleaning. On the bottom shelf of the dining room closet I found a Polaroid with "Junebug" written across the bottom. My roommate and I assumed it was the nickname of one of the three people in the photo, all decked out in what we imagined to be their Saturday-night finest. We were enchanted by them, but with so little to go on, we had to invent a history for them. The picture was displayed prominently on our bookshelf, and when we moved I returned Junebug to the closet, hoping the next occupant would find the same delight in his discovery.
While some people have such experiences rarely if at all, others actively seek them out. Other People's Pictures, a documentary by Lorca Shepperd and Cabot Philbrick making its Chicago premiere this coming Thursday, is about nine of those sorts. The filmmakers follow them through the Chelsea Flea Market in New York City to offer an engrossing look into the world of photo collectors captivated by homemade images of people they will never meet.
Shepperd is no stranger to this particular subculture: she has thousands of photos collected in shoeboxes, including many images of hands holding small animals and table settings, with or without people. "I just started collecting snapshots, probably around 1999 or 2000, and I didn't have any idea that other people did that kind of thing," she says. "So when we discovered this certain part of the Chelsea Flea Market and learned that there were all these dealers who specialize in snapshots, and all these people who collect them specifically, that's when we went, whoa, we could make a whole film about this."
The filmmakers, who are married and freelance on TV documentaries for a living, shot Other People's Pictures, their first independent feature, on weekends over the course of a year and a half and spent an additional year editing in their free time. "The dealers started hooking people up with us, saying you might wanna talk with this person or that person," Shepperd says. "But we did also just sort of walk up to people if we saw them sorting through photos, and we'd say, 'Hey, we're making a documentary of people who collect these things.'"
One woman, probably in her 40s, says she looks for snapshots of "strong women with attitude" from the 1920s and '30s. These might include women behind the wheel of a car or a tractor, or smoking, or cross-dressing. Other people collect old square Kodacolor prints, or pictures where the shadow of the photographer ended up in the frame. Yet others look for accidentally alluring compositions.
Some collectors note that snapshots can be particularly revealing in terms of what they leave out. Mutilated snapshots might indicate a relationship gone sour (or, if you're a half-full kind of person, that a portion of a photo was needed for a collage). A woman who owns at least 40,000 snapshots and works with Down syndrome patients has managed to find only four Down-related snaps in all her years of collecting, and three are of the same child. She attributes this to the way people often dealt with the condition in the early 20th century--for all intents and purposes writing that child out of the family. A man of Japanese-Hawaiian descent collects snapshots of Hawaii from its beginnings as a tourism hot spot and says he finds a disproportionate number of pictures of white tourists and the military, while images of indigenous Hawaiians, who often worked on the plantations and couldn't afford cameras, are few and far between. An Israeli immigrant who lost many of his family members during the Holocaust collects images of Nazis in uniform going about mundane activities like eating breakfast or attending weddings. To him these images represent the "banality of evil."
Serious collectors often have tens of thousands of snapshots, and they don't always come cheap. "Everyone talks about their wonderful memories of the beginning, when you could buy a whole box of snapshots for two bucks or for a dime apiece," Shepperd says. "And now they definitely go up into the hundreds of dollars. They're not all that expensive, obviously. But when I bid on eBay--and I'm by no means a big-time collector--if I really want something, I better be prepared to spend a hundred bucks."
What ties all these collectors together is that in their own way, they're using other people's images to tell their own stories. A young gay man, for example, collects images of men embracing, holding hands, or arm-in-arm in an attempt to "save gay history," even though he admits there's no way of knowing if the men in the photos were in fact gay. Heterosexuals have "museums full of their history," he says. "I have a trunk full of mine."
Other People's Pictures
When: Thu 3/2, 7 PM
Where: Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 756 N. Milwaukee
Info: 312-243-9088 or outsider.art.org
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Monika Stangel.