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Why One Collector’s Old Snapshots Of Strangers Matter To A Museum06:00
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Men with heads through fence. Unidentified artist, American, 20th century (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Men with heads through fence. Unidentified artist, American, 20th century (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Some of us have stowed away boxes or dusty albums filled with fading family snapshots. Sift through them and there’s a chance you’ll discover pictures of apparent strangers.

Mystery photos can be amusing and perplexing, but for collector Peter Cohen they’re an obsession. "We all can visualize these," he said, "These are our parents, our grandparents, our great-great-grandparents."

Cohen has rescued more than 50,000 “found” vintage photographs taken by anonymous amateurs, and now they’re on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The exhibition titled, "Unfinished Stories," validates Cohen’s ongoing quest to secure the everyday snapshot’s place in photographic history.

Peter Cohen stands before a sign explaining his eclectic collection of found photographs. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Peter Cohen stands before a sign explaining his eclectic collection of found photographs. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

To make his case the New Yorker evokes the pain people feel when beloved, irreplaceable objects are destroyed in house floods or fires.

"They don't talk about the dining room table, they talk about their family photographs being lost. These are our individual and collective memory — of our life on earth with people we've loved and enjoyed being with," he said.

But the vintage, found photo collection Cohen has amassed is filled with strangers. And while he's on a serious preservation mission, a lot of his photos are surprising because he's got some seriously quirky tastes in imagery.

“I’ve always been attracted to people posed on either poles or in trees,” he said the day of the MFA show's opening.

Five men looking down from the top of a structure. Unidentified artist, American, 20th century (Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Five men looking down from the top of a structure. Unidentified artist, American, 20th century (Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Cohen has been unearthing what amounts to a mother lode of unusual vintage pictures over the past 25 years. They feature everything from families on vacation, to self-portraits, to shots amateur photographers took of their own feet, to couples and friends frolicking on lawns. He says there’s something powerfully nostalgic in them that speaks to us.

Unidentified photographer, American, about 1920s-30s. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Unidentified photographer, American, about 1920s-30s. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Cohen began saving discarded, everyday snapshots after spotting a Tupperware tub full of them at a flea market. He bought five for $5 and an obsession was born.

Now Cohen has more than 50,000. He just donated 1,000 to the MFA. In a busy corridor lined with some 300 of them he explained how he dreamed up novel categories to organize his vast trove, starting with “Dangerous Women.”

“At first I just started out with pictures of women holding a gun or a bow and arrow or an axe or a knife or a rolling pin or a baseball bat or a golf club or something — and then it got extended to just dangerous looks as well as an object.”

In March, Cohen collaborated with a curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a book filled with black and white images of females boxing, boozing and cavorting through the decades. And curators at the Museum of Modern Art made one with 40 from Cohen’s “Women on Lawns” category.

The collector celebrates the imperfect, candid shots people naively nabbed as they experimented with their cameras. Some of Cohen’s other categories embrace mistakes with names such as “Photographer’s Shadows” and “Double Exposures.”

“People got them back from the drugstore or the camera store, they opened their packet of photographs and they saw these obvious mistakes,” Cohen said of the ghostly, in-camera effect that can be really cool, or really disturbing. “And they kept them, in some cases they wrote Uncle George on the back — in spite of the fact that Uncle George looks like a Kandinsky, you couldn’t tell what anybody was in the picture — and it got glued in their album along with other pictures that were clearly identifiable.”

The accidental double exposures fuel Cohen’s argument that the foibles of amateurs contributed to development of art photography.

“Are these pictures the equivalent of pictures by Stieglitz or Steichen or Diane Arbus?” he asked, then answered his own question, “No, probably not. But they’re incredibly interesting, and in many respects predate work that was done by professionals by decades.”

Unidentified photographer, American, about 1940s. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Unidentified photographer, American, about 1940s. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

“I think many people will be surprised to see snapshots in an exhibition in a museum,” MFA curator of photography Karen Haas said. “But now as they become more historical objects — and we the public really experience photographs on our phones and on screens and through Instagram and all — these talismans are really becoming sort of untethered from the families and owners who know who the people are and know the stories behind them.”

Filling in those narratives is part of the pleasure of viewing these snapshots. It's hard not to project sometimes fleeting memories on them of people from your own past.

There’s been a surge of recent exhibitions filled with anonymous photos, with major ones in San Francisco and Paris. The image Haas and co-curator Kristen Gresh chose to symbolize the MFA show features a smartly dressed couple, but the photographer inadvertently cut off their heads.

“The idea that in the '40s or '50s — when this was made — that this was not only saved but presumably put in someone’s album,” Haas mused, “And that they would’ve known that that was Uncle Bob and Aunt Betty. But of course to us it’s just a wonderfully strange, almost surreal photograph.”

Putting it in contemporary context, Gresh added, “Today we would probably erase a photograph like that,” with the swipe of a finger.

Unidentified photographer, American, about 1950s. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Unidentified photographer, American, about 1950s. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The curators say these accidental photos, along with Cohen’s other images, tell the story of photography in America that can’t be ignored.

“We can’t really study the field or think that we understand photography by limiting ourselves to the fine art world,” Haas said.

Through this collection you can trace our evolving love-affair with accessible, picture-taking technologies like Kodak’s handheld box camera of the 1880s, the Brownie which started being sold in 1900, up through instant Polaroids in the '60s and '70s.

The curators also say this diverse grouping of snapshots stand out because of Cohen’s eye for significance. When selecting what to acquire he actually plays a game with himself that he calls, “Defending Your Photograph.” He explained how it goes:

“I come home from the flea market, or open a package that’s arrived from eBay or some dealer who sent me some pictures on approval, and I take a look at the picture and I say, ‘OK, what do I like about this picture? Or what don’t I like about this picture? Does it fit in a social context or part of social history that I find fascinating?' ”

One of his categories honors the rise of the American automobile and how it spurred car trip photography. Another highlights images of train culture in the U.S. There's also one that explores how affordable cameras liberated African-American families to tell their private and public stories through film.

“The camera gave people a real agency,” Haas explained, “it allowed people to represent themselves the way they wanted to be seen, and the way they wanted to show themselves to the world.”

That tendency is clearly alive and well today. (Facebook anyone?)

A "self-shot" by an unidentified photographer, American, about 1930s-40s. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
A "self-shot" by an unidentified photographer, American, about 1930s-40s. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

There are also images that could be seen as the precursors to today’s selfies. One features what appears to be couple. The woman looks demurely away from the lens and at her male companion. He, the taker, peers directly into the camera. The phrase “self-shot” is written above their heads.

Cohen says he’s become fairly expert at placing photos in time by using “tricks” common in this trade. He examines car models, license plates, women and men’s fashions, paper thickness, tonality, borders and edges. But he says identifying actual people is another matter.

“The vast majority of snapshots — 95 percent plus — do not even have a name or date on them,” Cohen said, “Sometimes you’ll see, ‘Edith, 1913,’ on a woman on a swing, and that gives you at least something to go on.”

It can be frustrating, he says, like searching for a needle in a haystack. The one and only image Cohen has been able to successfully identify is of someone from his own family. He found it in a photo album given to him by a friend.

“I was absolutely astonished to see a picture of my mother’s father on his boat in Lake Michigan in 1938. The boat was named so there was no doubt in my mind.”

Unidentified photographer, American, mid-20th century. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Unidentified photographer, American, mid-20th century. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Cohen has his own theory about why so many personal photos become orphans over time. He thinks most families hold on to pictures for about three generations. Or until living relatives age-out from recognizing their forebears. Then — off to the flea market.

Even so, in this digital age Cohen believes old-fashioned physical photos will be the ones to survive.

“Not to be a Luddite — but I do believe that the vast majority of pictures that are taken in today’s world will just evaporate or people won’t have access to them.”          

This idea crossed 24-year-old museum visitor Andrew Shenk’s mind as he looked at Cohen’s snapshots in the MFA exhibition.

“You wonder about where our photographs will be in 100 years,” he mused, “most likely gone. Yeah, they don’t exist in the physical space in the same sense. And they don’t have the same kind of quirks of imperfections that these do.”

Shenk says he hasn’t made physical photos in 10, maybe 15 years. “It’s not really a reality for me anymore,” he said.

That's why Cohen recommends we print out one of every 10 digital images we take if we want to have something to pass down to our own families.

"Unfinished Stories: Snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Collection" is on view at the MFA through Feb. 21, 2016.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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