You can observe a lot by watching

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away

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A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away.
– Eudora Welty

About five years ago, I decided to look through our family snapshots. I can’t remember exactly what triggered it but there were a few boxes and I scanned all of the interesting ones I could find.

I’ve always felt family photos to be precious. I don’t care if they’re poorly composed or the framing is off. Like us, these images have their individual quirks and it’s the quirks that make them interesting. Time stands still and so do people in photographs. Snapshots have the power to jolt memories and start conversations. These pictures are a part of who I am. In them, I can see where I come from. I can’t imagine not knowing what my grandfather looked like. I never knew him but I can see I have his nose. In my parent’s dining room, there are photos from their wedding. This happened years before I was born but because these images exist, I can experience a part of it with them.

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Family snapshots capture a sense of belonging, of camaraderie. There’s a lot of love in them but also there are the petty annoyances, people caught off-guard, smiles slipping, boredom, routine, the stuff of life. They can tell us so much about our family structures, our relationships and ourselves.

I don’t just look at the thing itself or at the reality itself; I look around the edges for those little askew moments – kind of like what makes up our lives – those slightly awkward, lovely moments. – Keith Carter 

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It’s important that we look for inspiration in our homes and in our hearts, as well as in the obvious places. Go through those old photographs gathering dust in cupboards and cardboard boxes.

Keep taking photos to add to family albums or that folder on your desktop. Use them to start conversations.

Who knows what you’ll discover.

William Klein

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Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even it is clumsy, that doesn’t look like somebody else’s work.

– William Klein

William Klein has been described as an outsider, a rebel and a true original. He’s also one of the most influential photographers of all time.

Never afraid to go against the mainstream, Klein’s photographs can be distorted and out of focus. The pictures he took in New York in the 1950s draw attention to the seedier parts of the city, which people found repugnant or preferred to hide.

Defying the rule book, he embraces accidents, cramming multiple points of interest into the frame. His photographs are full of life, with huge amounts going on at once.

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© William Klein
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© William Klein
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© William Klein
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© William Klein
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© William Klein

I have always done the opposite of what I was trained to do… having little technical background, I become a photographer. Adopting a machine, I do my utmost to make it malfunction. For me, to make a photograph was to make an anti-photograph.

– William Klein

Klein doesn’t care about expensive photographic equipment as he is more concerned with getting out into the world and producing images. Shooting with an unusually wide angle lens, he involves the viewer, while getting up close and personal with people, interacting with them even at the point of pressing the shutter.

Even now, aged 89, Klein makes his own rules while continuing to make art and inspiring a new generation of photographers.

Recommended Reading

William Klein: Life is Good & Good for You in New York

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William Klein’s groundbreaking first book published in 1956. This version is super affordable as it’s a reprint of the original. Highly recommended.

Lisette Model

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Lisette Model photographed by Weegee

Lisette Model (1901-83) is one of the twentieth century’s most significant photographers despite her reputation being built on a few haphazard test rolls shot in the thirties and forties. Her best known works consist of a series of portraits she made using a 35mm camera on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice and on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side.

Model’s photographs are often brutal, full figure close-ups of people’s bodies and faces. Her negatives tend to be crude and out of focus. Unafraid to experiment, in New York, she captured overlapping reflections in store windows and lowered her camera down to the level of the sidewalk in order to catch the frenetic tangle of passing feet.

I am a passionate lover of the snapshot, because of all photographic images it comes closest to truth […] The snap-shooter’s […] pictures have an apparent disorder and imperfection, which is exactly their appeal and their style. The picture isn’t straight. It isn’t done well. It isn’t composed. It isn’t thought out. And out of this imbalance, and out of this not knowing, and out of this real innocence toward the medium comes an enormous vitality and expression of life. 

– Lisette Model

 Through her direct portrayals of modern life, Model emphasised the peculiarities of average people in everyday situations.

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© Lisette Model
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© Lisette Model
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© Lisette Model

Lisette Model allowed herself to fall in love with taking photographs. She didn’t overthink her work; her photographs weren’t staged or planned. Instead, she followed her gut, reacting to the moment as it unfolded. She had nothing to prove and the courage to push the boundaries in order to develop her unique style at a time when the art world was predominately male-orientated.

Model was also resilient. When she ran into difficulties finding assignments, she became a passionate teacher, inspiring Diane Arbus and Larry Fink, and continued shooting her ground breaking photographs right up until her death.

I have often been asked what I wanted to prove by my photographs. The answer is, I don’t want to prove anything. They prove to me, and I am the one who gets the lesson.

– Lisette Model 

Recommended Reading

Lisette Model: Aperture Monograph

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This is the first book ever published on Lisette Model and contains over fifty of her greatest images.