You can observe a lot by watching.
– Yogi Berra
I found my first discarded film inside a broken bellows camera at a car boot sale. Although I didn’t hold out much hope for the results, I wound back the half-exposed roll and dropped it off at a local photo lab. A few days later, I collected the developed negatives along with a little packet containing six images. The medium format film had long expired so the resulting images were beautiful shades of pink, purple and blue. My favourite was a picture of a man and woman turned towards the camera. Their figures were blurred and unrecognisable. The woman had one arm raised, as though caught off guard.
All found photographs are enigmas. Their true content can never be known for certain because the original context has been lost. Sleuth-like, I scan these mysterious images for clues, making up stories and assumptions based only on what I can see.
Several conflicting responses come into play when I encounter found photographs; I respond with voyeuristic fascination fuelled by stereotypes, but also with a surrealist’s glee in discovering the bizarre and with an anthropologist’s interest in photographs as cultural artefacts.
– Barry Mauer
Found images are virtual time machines and portals to other worlds. They enable us to visit moments that no longer exist. Through them, forgotten memories are reclaimed and made precious. Most serve to document people’s lives and as such, there’s no agenda. Snapshots tend to be honest and authentic. I also love the instinctual way amateurs take photos; the accidental light leaks, double exposures and blur make even the most mundane images appear magical and surreal.
Some people prowl flea markets and auctions searching for very specific images to add to their collection, such as vintage cars, smiling babies and people with their heads cut out. Others gather found photographs to repurpose in their own art like Joachim Schmid. Often, finds appear out of the blue, in skips and rubbish bins, on the pavement or between the pages of books, cropping up where you least expect them.
I most enjoy finding exposed rolls of film and getting them developed. There is no selection process involved and the end result is always unexpected. The surprises are part of what drew me to film photography in the first place.
Maybe it’s the inevitability of time passing and of death that draws us to found photographs; the intrigue of the unusual or unexplained; the snippets of another life which remind us of personal experiences. Maybe it’s the seemingly endless, fascinating cycle of human beings photographing the same troupes again and again.
It could be a combination of all of these things and more. Our choices are highly personal and are as unique as the images we covet. All collections can be said to contain elements of the person to which they belong. In this way, a stranger’s photographs can tell us as much about ourselves as our own.