WIDENING THE HORIZON: Maynard Dixon

Maynard Dixon- Love to Babette- Matthews Gallery Blog

There are just a few days left to see WIDENING THE HORIZON: New Mexico Landscapes
Read on to learn about one of our favorite featured artworks, and make sure to come see it 
before the exhibition closes on June 30.

“Travel East to see the real West,” said Charles Lummis to Maynard Dixon. Dixon (1875-1946) was born on a ranch near Fresno, California. His friend and mentor Lummis was a journalist, photographer and poet who walked from Cincinnati to Los Angeles in 1884, a 2,200-mile journey that took him through New Mexico in the dead of winter. Despite the severe hardships of the journey, Lummis fell in love with the Southwest and became a staunch advocate for historic preservation projects and the rights of the Pueblo Indians.

Inspired by Lummis’ tales, Dixon set out on his own Southwestern adventure in 1900. In California, he had studied under tonalist painter Arthur Mathews and worked extensively as an illustrator, but the trip to Arizona and New Mexico swung his artwork in a new direction. He took a horseback ride through the West the following year and developed a heavy impasto style, capturing endless vistas with a vibrant palette. Back in San Francisco, he sold paintings and watercolors dressed in his cowboy uniform: boots, a bolo tie and a black Stetson.

Maynard Dixon- Artist- Matthews Gallery Blog

The booming market for illustrations of the Wild West kept Dixon well-fed at the turn of the century. In 1905, he married artist Lillian West Tobey. The following years were wrought with calamity: most of Dixon’s early work was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and a move to New York in 1907 left Dixon frustrated and uninspired. His return to San Francisco in 1912 ended his first marriage, but renewed his commitment to creating “honest art of the West”, free of the commercialism that influenced his previous work.

In the 1920’s, a new interest in modernism lead Dixon to experiment with post-impressionism and cubism. Dense details gave way to an elegant style. He built a reputation for paintings of spare landscapes dominated by infinite swirling skies. His pastel Love to Babette, a tribute to art patron and San Francisco socialite Babette Clayburgh, is an impeccable example of his mature work.

Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange- Matthews Gallery Blog

Dixon married legendary Western photographer Dorothea Lange in 1920, and they had two sons. In late 1931 and early 1932, they lived in Taos, New Mexico in a house owned by their friend Mabel Dodge Luhan. The Taos Society of Artists offered Dixon a coveted spot in their ranks, but he disagreed with their strict bylaws and declined. However, Dixon’s time in New Mexico was perhaps the happiest and most productive of his life. He completed over 40 canvases in his four months there, focusing on the residents of Taos and their complex relationship with the rugged terrain of the High Desert.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Lange made some of her best-known images, documenting rampant poverty in the West. Dixon was in turn inspired to dabble in social realism. The couple was separated for a time when Dixon again took up Western painting in Utah’s Zion National Park and Mount Carmel, and divorced in 1935. Lange lived the rest of her years in Berkeley, while Dixon continued to travel through the West: to Montana, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

San Francisco muralist Edith Hamlin became Dixon’s third wife in 1937, and they moved to southern Utah in 1939. From their summer home in Mount Carmel, Dixon continued to paint powerful scenes of the West until his death in 1946. His ashes were buried in Mount Carmel.

Learn more about Maynard Dixon on our website, and come see WIDENING THE HORIZON: New Mexico Landscapes now through June 30. Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for daily gallery news.

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PICTORIALISM: From Stieglitz to Curtis

Alfred-Stieglitz-Edward-Curtis-Art2

It was 1901 in New York City, and photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was busy preparing an exhibition that would shake the foundations of the art world. He had worked for years—often to the point of physical exhaustion—to elevate photography to the stature of fine art. A series of juried photography shows, judged mostly by painters, had popularized the aesthetic of pictorialism. Pictorialist photographers approached their art like a painter or illustrator, playing with focus and exposure in innovative ways and even marking the surfaces of their images. The idea was to “make” an image rather than “take” it, projecting emotions into the scene and onto the viewer.

Stieglitz and his friends saw the need for yet another leap forward in this new era of photography. They would mount a show composed entirely of photographs, and judged only by photographers. Or rather, it would be judged by one photographer: Stieglitz himself. He put together the show in two months and dubbed it the Photo-Secession, intending to secede from old conceptions of both photography and fine art. The exhibition was an enormous success, and gave Stieglitz the momentum to launch a photography journal and gallery to promote his ideas.

Pictorialism- Alfred Stieglitz to Edward Curtis- Matthews Gallery Blog

 

From left: View of Stieglitz’s Little Galleries of the Photo Secession, which opened in 1905;
Edward S. Curtis in his adventure clothes.

Thousands of miles away in Seattle, Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) was just beginning his photography career. Curtis grew up in Wisconsin and built his first camera when he was a teenager. At 17 he apprenticed in a photography studio in St. Paul, Minnesota, and when his family moved to Seattle in 1887, he bought a partnership in a portrait studio. Over the next few years, he began photographing Native American people of the Washington territory, some of them relatives of Chief Sealth and other important leaders. These early portraits and genre scenes inspired a 30-year adventure through the American West, during which Curtis and his team recorded the lives of over 80 tribes in photographs, writings, recordings and sketches.

Curtis’ expeditions, which he recorded in a series of volumes called The North American Indian, kept him far away from the epicenter of the American avant-garde where Stieglitz resided. “He was an outsider, too far removed from the photographic salons to court or count on ready shows and reviews that had instituted pictorialist photography,” writes Gerald Vizenor in an essay on Curtis. However, it’s this aesthetic that ties Stieglitz and Curtis together in art history.

“Curtis kept abreast of national, even international, trends in photography—and in the visual arts more generally,” writes Mick Gidley. “His early writings for Seattle magazines reveal that he absorbed much from Pictorialism in photography, including the example of Alfred Stieglitz, the founder of the Photo-Secession.” Curtis’ earliest photographs of Native peoples feature the soft focus and sepia tone of some classic pictorialist images, and present his subjects as stoic archetypes of a vanishing culture. In his many adventures, Curtis often posed his subjects and manipulated images to fit his vision of the tribes he was portraying. These techniques have earned Curtis praise as a pictorialist, but have also stirred up controversy. Curtis called himself an ethnologist, but the aesthetically powerful images he created didn’t always aim for scientific accuracy.

In the collection of photographs below, we’ve reunited Curtis with his pictorialist roots, placing some of his most iconic images among significant works by Stieglitz and his contemporaries. As you view the images, ponder Curtis’ position as an outsider during his lifetime, and his new place as a pictorialist in the art history books…

Edward S Curtis- Girl and Jar Photogravure- Matthews Gallery Blog

Edward S. Curtis, Girl and Jar, Photogravure

Adolph de Meyer- Marchesa Casati- 1912- Pictorialism- Matthews Gallery Blog

Adolph de Meyer, Marchesa Casati, 1912

Edward S Curtis- Apache Medicine-Man Photogravure- Matthews Gallery Blog

Edward S. Curtis, Apache Medicine-Man, Photogravure

Henry Peach Robinson- Fading Away- 1858- Pictorialism- Matthews Gallery Blog

Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away, 1858

EdwardCurtis-Art-TheRushGatherer

Edward S. Curtis, The Rush Gatherer, Photogravure

Alvin Langdon Coburn- Spiderwebs- 1908- Pictorialism- Matthews Gallery Blog

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Spiderwebs, 1908

Edward S Curtis- Waiting the Forest-Cheyenne Photogravure- Matthews Gallery Blog

Edward S. Curtis, Waiting in the Forest— Cheyenne, Photogravure

Paul Haviland- Doris Keane- 1912- Pictorialism- Matthews Gallery Blog

Paul Haviland, Doris Keane, 1912

Edward S Curtis- The Storm-Apache Photogravure- Matthews Gallery Blog

Edward S. Curtis, The Storm-Apache, Photogravure

Alfred Stieglitz- The Terminal- 1893- Pictorialism- Matthews Gallery Blog

Alfred Stieglitz, The Terminal, 1893

Click here to learn more about Edward S. Curtis, his adventures and the rediscovery of his work in the 1970’s, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for daily gallery news.

ROCH HART: Mystery of the Petroglyphs

Roch-Hart-New-Mexico-Jeep-Tours Roch Hart’s jeep outside Matthews Gallery

Roch Hart is the first and only fine furniture maker in our stable, but he also has a pretty awesome day job. As the owner of New Mexico Jeep Tours, Hart takes visitors on rugged expeditions across a 20,000 acre private ranch between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The property is home to wild horses and numerous petroglyphs left behind by ancient Pueblo cultures.

We first met Hart through the image sharing website Flickr, where he posts stunning photographs from his adventures. We had no idea that he was also a master craftsman until he reached out to us. Not long after, a big red jeep full of beautiful hand-carved benches appeared outside the gallery. When we saw how good Hart’s work looked in our Southwestern art room, we knew it was a perfect match.

It didn’t take long to realize that Hart’s adventurous occupation and his impressive hobby were connected. As chronicled in previous posts, many of his works feature symbols from the petroglyphs he discovers on the ranch. The ancient marks are part of a complex language, and their meanings are partly lost to history. Luckily, Hart is a passionate detective. We asked him to show us some of his photos and tell the stories of petroglyphs that have inspired his work.

Take it away, Roch:

New-Mexico-Flag-Roch-Hart

New Mexico state flag, and a cross from Roch’s pie chest ‘The Way

In petroglyphs, the same symbol can hold multiple meanings. Take for example the Zia symbol on our state flag. Our European or Western paradigms might lead us to interpret the Zia as a simple, decorative depiction of the sun, but in the Pueblo culture these symbols were a communication form rather than an art form.  The circle of the Zia represents the circle of life. The four rays radiating from the circle represent many different things: the four directions, the seasons, the elements or even four stages in a person’s life. In the Pueblo culture, the four is a sacred number. I have found petroglyphs with faces whose mouths are in a square shape, perhaps speaking of the fours.

Roch-Hart-The-Way-Petroglyphs

Roch Hart with New Mexico petroglyphs, a similar design on Hart’s pie safe ‘The Way

Sometimes petroglyphs mimic the lines and rhythms of nature. I’ve been told by a trusted, unnamed native source that the triangular petroglyphs in the photo above represent mountains. The straight lines below the mountains may represent mesas, and below that is a mark that resembles a body of water. This could be a map of sorts. Not far from this petroglyph, there is a small pond with a view of mesas and the Jemez Mountains. On my latest pie safe, ‘The Way, I carved a similar pattern to represent mountains.

Roch-Hart-Petroglyph-Shield-WarriorShield Warrior petroglyph, photo by Roch Hart

In the world of petroglyphs there is a common theme of anthropomorphism (I really just like saying that word). Humans will sometimes take on the form of an animal, insect, or warrior shield. In the simple petroglyph above, a circled cross with a head and eyes represents a Shield Warrior. If we were still doing petroglyphs, this one could have represented me during my days as a cop. As you can see, this little guy also has the cross in his shield, representing the fours or ‘the way.’

Roch-Hart-Bear-Claw-PetroglyphsBear claw petroglyphs with storyteller and listener faces, photo by Roch Hart

 

Another common theme in petroglyphs is the ‘yin and yang.’ For instance, every storyteller needs a listener. The images above show petroglyphs that represent bear tracks. The tracks come in pairs, and each track has a face inside it representing a storyteller or a listener.

Roch-Hart-Storyteller-Faces

 ‘Marriage’ petroglyph, faces on Hart’s pie safe ‘The Storytellers

I call the petroglyph above ‘The Marriage.’ You can see two distinct people occupying one checkerboard body. If you look carefully, the square head appears to be speaking while the round head has its mouth closed. My pie safe called ‘The Storytellers‘ explores this theme of opposites. The listener and the speaker depend on each other.

Roch-Hart-New-Mexico-Petroglyphs

New Mexico petroglyphs, a spiral design on a bench by Roch Hart

Another common symbol is the spiral.  Spirals or concentric circles often represent time or travel.  I have found that cracks are often incorporated into these petroglyphs and I will find a spiral with the outer end going to or ending in a crack.  A common legend amongst the Pueblo natives is that they originated under the earth’s crust and made the journey to surface.  I believe these spirals convey that journey.  On one of my early pie safes, I placed a spiral on the door with the tail leading up to the middle joint of the door.

 Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 6.22.02 PMNew Mexico petroglyphs

Petroglyphs are very complex and have multiple layers of meaning and legend.  This blog post just scratches the surface, so to speak.  We have lost much knowledge of petroglyphs because early Spanish priests saw them as spiritualism apart from Catholicism. Catholicism was the state religion and the only legal one, so petroglyphs were outlawed.  In fact we often find crucifixes etched into the stones near these sites, placed there by the early priests to exorcise the place of evil spiritualism and to remind the Pueblo natives that this was not longer an accepted practice.

While part of me is upset about how we lost the knowledge of these ancient symbols, I enjoy that I don’t completely understand the mystery.  I love the idea that in some respects it is open to the interpretation of the beholder. Only the maker knew.

To make my fine furniture, I blend influence from the native cultures with my knowledge of Spanish colonial carpentry laws. That’s how I arrive on how to make a piece down to the joinery. But that’s for another blog post!

To see more photos by Hart, make sure to check out his Flickr account. See all of his furniture on our website, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for daily gallery news.

 

Hannah Holliday Stewart: Letter from Houston

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Houston Studio- Matthews Gallery

Our exhibition Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered
begins with an opening reception on Friday, July 4 from 5-7 pm

“In a day in which so many things in Art are merely exercises in Media and devoid of any real significance, it is refreshing to discover an expression which transcends the cerebral prison of its own time and manifests itself in forms poetically germane to a more cosmic significance,” wrote Dayton Smith, with poetic flair of his own, in a typewritten statement dated March 22, 1991.

Smith was referring to the sculptures of his close friend Hannah Holliday Stewart (1924- 2010), whose monumental forms caught the eye of the nation in the 1970s and 80s. As chronicled in our last blog post, Smith and Stewart met in Houston in the late 1960s as Stewart’s career was taking off. He assisted Stewart in various ways for a number of years, and watched as the artist found success in galleries and museums across the country.

More from the note:

Her art mirrors a consciousness expanded beyond the pragmatic doctrinal limits of our milieu. Her commissions stand to prick our higher sensibilities in a world which, it would seem, affords little for the pursuit of what may be a neglected cosmic heritage. In an age in which “symmetry does not balance make” (but which, nevertheless seems to be the applied solution for everything), her bold compositions embody a superbly balanced abstract expression of form and function suggestive of the anthropomorphic with its attendant graces and imperfections.

More than two decades later, Smith admits with a chuckle that the write-up can be a bit “over the top”, but it survives as an illuminating statement about an artist whose cosmic creations were at times misunderstood. After we contacted him, Smith was inspired to return to the typewriter—or, keyboard—and draft another statement on Stewart’s work. His musings provide new insight into the life and artwork of the dynamic sculptor.

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Houston studio- Matthews Gallery

From Dayton Smith:

Hannah Remembered

It can be said with clarity and confidence that the monumental sculptural work of Hannah Holliday Stewart is cosmic in scope and spiritual in dimension and process. At the peak of her production in the 1970s and ’80s, there emerged from her studio great plaster forms, many well over ten feet in height. These graceful mammoths, cast in bronze, would weigh hundreds to thousands of pounds, and command public spaces in Houston and other cities. A major exhibition of these large plasters was mounted in January 1976 at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and another in the ’80s at One Houston Center. In the 1990s, she established studios in Flagstaff, Arizona, and later in Birmingham, Alabama, and finally in Albuquerque.

Born in 1924 in Marion, Alabama to a prominent family, she studied art in Alabama and Georgia (BFA), and at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan (MFA); studied ceramics in California with the legendary Bauhaus potter Marguerite Wildenhain; worked in foundries in Florida and Mexico; moved to Texas to teach at Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the University of Houston, and the University of St. Thomas. Her notable public works include Atropos Key, installed in 1972 on the hill at Houston’s Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park; Libertad, a smoothly elegant birdlike bronze at World Trade Center Houston; works in Samuels Park in Dallas and New Harmony in Indiana; and Passage, at University of St. Thomas Houston. Her public commissions are claimed as example of landmark achievement by women in the arts. Respected among Houston architects and adept in various media she developed sand-blasted and sand-cast relief panels for specific architectural settings. Her works of smaller scale are to be found in notable private collections.

Her studies in literature, mythology, metaphysics, esoteric philosophy, religion, science, astrology, dance and yoga suffuse her output, revealing in form and textures. Her earlier smaller works reflect ineffable humanity, humor, elegant charm and always superb craftsmanship. She was disciplined, intelligent and well-read, possessed of an intense work ethic, compassionate and understanding and encouraging of others, and an inspiring teacher, respected and loved by friends in business, academia and the arts. Whether attired in her usual studio denim or occasional Dior, she moved among interesting people and was an accomplished host and gourmet. Music was her creative keynote and the atmosphere mystical, always stimulating and, on occasion, convivial. On so many occasions when I would assist her in some project: photographing, gallery installation and lighting, foundry, studio, even building repair, I was aware that I was only facilitating much greater work. I think she really did come to ‘see’ the wind, and must have stood in awe of that which materialized from her consciousness and hands. I can still hear her warm southern voice and motto – Nil desperandum!, and her memory, towering as her work, is quite, quite treasured.

D.A. Smith
Public Broadcasting, University of Houston, retired

Make sure to attend the opening reception of our exhibition Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered on Friday, July 4 from 5-7 pm. To learn more, check out our previous blog post and our Hannah Holliday Stewart artist page. For daily gallery news, connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Houston studio- Matthews Gallery

FAMILIAR STRANGERS: The Orphanage

Palace of the Governors Photo Archives

 Palace of the Governors Image Specialist Hannah Abeldeck sifts through the archives

“I think what you’re referring to is what we call ‘orphan photographs,'” said Palace of the Governors Photo Archivist Daniel Kosharek over the phone. “We have boxes and boxes of them.”

We contacted Kosharek last week in hopes of getting another angle on vernacular photography for our upcoming FAMILIAR STRANGERS show, which opens this Friday. The private collectors we had interviewed so far seemed delighted by the often unsolvable mysteries of found photographs. Did a professional archivist find an unknown image intriguing… or annoying?

A few days later, Daniel’s colleague Hannah Abeldeck ushered us onto an elevator and down to the basement of the Palace of the Governors. Abeldeck works as an image specialist for the archives, cataloguing, scanning and researching images in the collection of about 1,000,000 objects. The main room of the archives is packed with file cabinets and bookshelves. Sunlight streams down from a stairwell, making the subterranean space surprisingly bright.

“We weren’t a hundred percent sure what you were interested in, so I pulled some stuff to give you examples,” Abeldeck said, pointing to a teetering stack of files and a big green box.

To be honest, we weren’t sure either. We had no specific criteria when we were compiling photographs for FAMILIAR STRANGERS, which features compelling, mysterious images of diverse people and places. Unlike the scholars and history enthusiasts Abeldeck usually works with, we were more interested in questions than answers. In the following excerpts of our Q&A, Abeldeck provided us with a healthy helping of both as we explored a small corner of the “orphanage”.

Tools- Palace of the Governors Photo Archives The archivist’s toolkit

 

You started at the archives last October. Was it intimidating to approach such a large collection? 

I’ve worked in archives before, and for a rare book dealer. There are things about it that are not intimidating, but there are plenty of things that are. Partly, it’s the size of our collection. It’s huge. There’s stuff that’s really well processed, and then there’s stuff that’s hardly processed at all. There are so many different filing systems, so an original photograph can get put somewhere and be difficult to find again. There are systems by medium, by size, by when it arrived, by collection number.

Why were you interested in archival work? 

I think that our ideas about the past are often very simple. They’re based on things like summaries that people wrote about what they think happened. Sometimes photographs are a way of going back and re-looking at the past that you can’t do with words. You can get some idea of the complexity of the past. There’s a book that I read called “The Past is a Foreign Country.” In some ways, this job is like being a tourist. It’s interesting to see what is the same and what is different, what has changed and what is new.

Palace of the Governors Photo Archives

Orphan photos are catalogued in several ways: by location (left, New Mexico), collector (center, Forrest Fenn) or subject (right, portraits)

 

Where did the stack of orphan photos we’re looking at come from? 

We have a set of collections that exist in this limbo land between the old cataloguing system and the new cataloguing system. We might know something about them, or they might just be a box of photographs sitting on a shelf. This box says “Forrest Fenn“, so he probably donated them. Some have a photographer’s name on the back and some don’t. The stack of files is catalogued by location or subject— “New Mexico Towns” or “Portraits”.

Is there a way to estimate how many of your photographs are “orphaned”?

No, there’s not. Most of the stuff that we have, we know at least one thing about, so they’re not completely orphaned. Usually we know the photographer. Their name will be on the back, or the collection will be from their studio. Sometimes we don’t know anything about the photographer, but we know the location. When we seek things out for our collection, we’re usually looking for things where we know the photographer or the subject matter. But people also donate stuff to us. Those items that come in bulk collections, we know less about. The date is usually the thing that is the least identified about a photo.

What is the attitude among archivists towards orphan photos? 

Over the past 20 years, a lot of people who work in archives have adopted a philosophy called “MPLP.” That means “More Product, Less Processing.” It’s a way to deal with the huge volume of material that’s coming in. The volume of records that got created over the 20th century exponentially increased as the technology of production became cheaper. In the 1960s a photo archivist here might have spent four hours trying to identify a building in a photo. Now, we just don’t have time to do that. That’s one reason things get orphaned.

Palace of the Governors Photo Archives

 Mysterious beauty

 

The found photo collectors we interviewed find the element of mystery alluring. Do you get excited sometimes when you’re looking through orphan photographs, even though you don’t know their origins? 

Yeah! I’ll be looking through 100 unremarkable photographs from the past, and there’s one that seems more interesting or outstanding than others. There might be something aesthetically different about that photograph, but we’re also looking for historically interesting things. It doesn’t have to be a historical event, it could be about social history: why are these people together in this scenario? There are all sorts of social or technological things that could be interesting, even with orphan photographs.

In a blog post for FAMILIAR STRANGERS, we wrote about different roles people take when they’re looking at vernacular photographs: voyeur, detective, surrealist, even humanist. What would you add to that list? 

I’d add sociologist or social historian, particularly with the vernacular photography. We have a book called “Dressed for the Photographer” that’s a huge study of what people were wearing in daguerrotypes. You can date them based on their class and their region, so you can pin it a little more closely to the decade. It’s a way to find out what kinds of people passed through different places. We have portraits of Chinese men from Las Vegas, New Mexico that we don’t know much about, but their presence captures a bit of railroad history in the Southwest.

The photo collectors we interviewed also talked about the importance of bringing long-forgotten memories into the digital world. Do you feel similarly as an archivist? 

One of my main job duties is digitization. If you wanted to see and study some of these things, you would have to come to Santa Fe, New Mexico on an afternoon between Tuesday and Friday. Through digital cataloguing, we can post that stuff online and people can search from their houses. However, we have over 1,000,000 images and we’ve digitized maybe 30,000 of them. There’s still a huge mismatch between what we have and what is searchable online.

Palace of the Governors Photo Archives

Adelbeck flips through photographic glass plates in the archives. “As long as you don’t drop them, these will last forever.”

 

On the flip side, photo enthusiasts also stressed the importance of holding the physical object in their hands.

Having the original copy is very important for us in our ability to archive things. There’s something called digital obsolescence. For a physical photograph, if we put it in an archival mylar sleeve and keep them in a climate controlled environment, that is 95% of the preservation job. Digital objects are not that way, they need constant babysitting. Things periodically need to be switched over or upgraded. The CD is already an obsolete technology, so if you created a digital photograph in that format you have to migrate it to something else. With digital objects, there is a risk of the object disappearing within 15 years.

Do you have any stories of people identifying themselves or family members in an orphan photo? 

I just posted a picture on Facebook last week of two kids playing baseball. We knew the photographer and the date, and we knew it was in New Mexico somewhere. Someone recognized his brother in the photo. It’s really cool when that happens, but it’s bound to happen sometimes. We have all of these photos of unidentified people, and someone out there must know who they are. Those people existed at some point.

Is it frustrating when you encounter photographs that have recently left the range of “living memory”? 

It’s kind of interesting, because you start to understand the process by which photos get made, and how that affects what we can recover from the past. In the past, the occasions of photography were more constrained. You got a photo taken at an important event, like a wedding. As technology makes photography more accessible to the average person, you see a much larger growth of everyday captured moments that are not remarkable. At the same time, even within the proliferation of photography, there are things that happen that people don’t think to take pictures of. The process of painting a house might be interesting to future historians, but no one bothers to document that. There are a hundred billion photographs taken of the Santa Fe Plaza or the Palace of the Governors—and people are still taking them today—but there might be a storefront somewhere that no one has really photographed. It’s really interesting what people are choosing to document, and what they don’t document. We try to fill in those gaps by collecting photographers like Robert Christensen, a deliveryman who captured obscure stretches of road in rural New Mexico.

So this is just the tip of the iceberg?

Oh, yes. We have many, many, many more unidentified photos. If you needed pictures of ancestors and didn’t have any of your own, you could just come pick some. (laughs) “This is my great grandmother.”

Burro Photograph- Palace of the Governors Photo Archives

 Caption: Leaving Las Vegas During the Small Pox Scare, 1898; filed under Transportation, Land, Burros

You can follow Abeldeck and Kosharek’s exploits on the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives Facebook and Tumblr pages. Also, make sure to come to the opening of FAMILIAR STRANGERS: Vernacular Photography this Friday from 5-7 pm. Read more about the show in this week’s Santa Fe Reporter.

FAMILIAR STRANGERS: Almost Lost

Familiar Strangers Found Photography Show- Matthews Gallery Blog

Editor’s Note: No original photographs were harmed in the making of this blog

The messages were all the same. “Why do found photographs hold allure for you?” we wrote to members of Flickr’s robust vernacular photography community. “What is it about anonymous photographers and their subjects that makes collecting these artworks special or important?” 

As we explained in our last blog post, we’ve been wearing many different hats as we prepare for the May 16 opening of FAMILIAR STRANGERS: Vernacular Photography. Judging by the diverse answers we received from this query, it seems longtime found photography fans follow a similar process.

“At the time they were taken, they meant something to the photographer,” writes Gary Moyer, who runs a Flickr Group called Found Photos. “It’s a shame to think they can’t live on in this digital age.” But although part of Moyer’s mission is to bring this ephemera to the virtual realm, he’s also charmed by the objects themselves. “The photos are real, something to hold in your hand,” he concludes. 

For John Van Noate, administrator of several vernacular photography groups, it’s more about the immediacy of the image. “They provide a slice of life unfiltered, unmediated,” he writes. “Life in the raw, so to speak.”

Dave Bass‘ interest in vernacular photography started with a childhood fascination for taking snapshots. “I still recall the anxiety felt when retrieving a processed roll from the drugstore and opening the package to discover my treasures,” he recalls. Hunting down “orphan” photos seemed like a natural extension of his passion, and over years of collecting he’s learned a lot about human nature from the pictures he’s found.

I truly believe that such photographs are authentic cultural artifacts that portray who we as humans were, who we have become, and where we will likely go,” Bass writes. He uses Flickr group Vernacular Photo to connect with like-minded folks across the world. 

All of these intrepid collectors’ answers did have one thing in common: a sense of loss, and a desire to subvert it. As Moyer puts it, “Each [photograph] represents a moment that is gone forever.” In a way, these collections preserve memories that would otherwise have vanished long ago. 

On that hopeful note, we leave you with an excerpt from Paul Jackson‘s correspondence. The UK resident runs the Flickr group Found Photographs, and has a lot to say about vernacular photos and the power of the online community to uncover their secrets. It’s enough to make you believe that nothing is lost forever. Attend our FAMILIAR STRANGERS exhibition, opening May 16 from 5-7 pm, to untangle more mysteries!

Familiar Strangers Found Photography Show- Matthews Gallery Blog

From Paul Jackson:

I went to art school here in the UK in the 1970s and my interest in vernacular photographs stems from then. In those days you could often buy old postcards and snapshots in charity shops for virtually nothing. Often just arranged in old shoe boxes. You can rarely do that now as these things have become very collectable.

I think it is a shame when dealers break up old photograph albums as all the clues that would help place these images in context get wiped away. You may be interested in some subsidiary groups we run on Flickr. One is called “What’s That Picture” where we invite people to post pre-1945 images that they want help identifying. Sometimes this is a tall order but the Flickr community acts a bit like a hive mind and we have had some astonishing successes. A lot of these can be found in another group “The Astonishing Power of Flickr“. Here many images that have been successfully identified have been posted and some other extraordinary events such as people recognising themselves or other serendipitous events have occurred. 

You ask what the allure is for me. Well, there is something awfully poignant about old snap shots/vernacular photographs. The lives of strangers’ births deaths marriages, love, hearth and home..all life is there and with the knowledge that all that life has probably by now slipped away. These things end up in sales almost always through a death and the death of someone who either has no remaining family, or a family that cannot or will not preserve these fragile family histories. It is a very sobering thought.

I am at a period in my life when I am beginning to realise that even my own family photographs and the ones of my parents and grandparents are going to be vulnerable to be “lost” when I die and it does make you dwell on the ephemeral nature of life, the impermanence of the structures we build around ourselves and how easily it can fade away.

One of my favourite quotes is the famous one in Blade Runner when Roy Batty the replicant is dying:

“I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those. moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time… to die…”

Looking at so many old and found photographs I often think that “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe” the person behind the camera has seen these things, lived that life..you know, we can sometimes almost taste it.

 

Familiar Strangers Found Photography Show- Matthews Gallery Show

FAMILIAR STRANGERS: Be a Voyeur, Detective, Surrealist, Humanist!

Found Photograph- Familiar Strangers Show- Matthews Gallery

  Untitled, Unknown

“A photograph is usually looked at—seldom looked into,” said Ansel Adams. When it comes to the pictures in our upcoming show, there’s no other option but to dig a little deeper.

FAMILIAR STRANGERS: Vernacular Photography, opening Friday, May 16, is not your typical Matthews Gallery show. The artists who created our collection of found photographs never got the recognition that Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec or Renoir did, but there’s no denying their aesthetic sensibilities.

That’s what has kept us digging through estate sales, thrift shops, antique stores and attics for years. We’ve amassed quite the collection of vernacular photographs, also known as “found” or “orphan” photos, and we’re not alone in our scavenging habits. Our friends on social media understand the great allure of the hunt.

Looking at so many old and found photographs I often think that, ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,'” writes Paul Jackson, who maintains the Flickr group Found Photographs.  “The person behind the camera has seen these things, lived that life..you know, we can sometimes almost taste it.” We asked several other photo finders what they love about the pursuit, and they all had equally passionate answers.

Vernacular photography presents unique challenges to the viewer, asking us to shift between different roles to grasp what we’re seeing. Our first impulse is often voyeuristic. We can’t resist a peek at someone’s intimate moment, and we swiftly draw conclusions about what’s going on. In the image above a baton girl gawks open-mouthed at a band boy, but he looks resolutely away. Is this a tale of unrequited love?

Society often slaps us on the wrist for our voyeuristic tendencies. In his brilliant essay on found photography Dr. Barry Mauer of the University of Central Florida says this instinct is something we should indulge.

“At first sight, most of these pictures are hilarious or tragic or both,” writes Mauer. “Voyeurism allows me to experience these reactions from a comfortable distance.” However, Mauer cautions against stopping there. Voyeurism often comes hand-in-hand with judgment and categorization. Stereotyping these mysterious individuals cuts us off from a rich world of visual mysteries. Time to pull out the magnifying glass.

Found Photograph- Familiar Strangers Show- Matthews Gallery

 

Untitled, Unknown

If we act as detectives, this simple portrait holds a lot of hints about the bicyclist and her photographer. Did you notice the bandages on her knee and arm? If those are recent wounds, perhaps she’s just learning how to ride. It’s difficult to tie a forearm bandage on your own. Maybe the person behind the camera is her teacher and medic? On the other hand, the bags on the handlebars hint at a different adventure. One of them looks like a canteen. Could the other hold snacks for a picnic?

Teasing out these details is invigorating. To take it one step further, note the composition of the photograph. The front wheel is cut off and part of the path is visible behind the girl. This perspective, when combined with the subject’s bent posture and excited face, lends the photo a sense of forward movement. Our mysterious photographer has imbued a picture of a static bike with surprising dynamism. Was that his or her intention?

Found Photograph- Familiar Strangers Show- Matthews Gallery

Untitled, Unknown

Of course, in the end we’ll probably never know if our inferences are correct. Who better to help us surmount our fear of the unknown than the surrealists? André Breton and his friends were inspired rather than daunted by impenetrable mysteries. They sought out fragments of culture, watching films from between their fingers to try to catch discreet details and writing stories based on dreams they had about real experiences.

Both techniques allowed them to focus on details they otherwise would’ve ignored. In the photo above, our interest in the group in the foreground distracts from the odd figure standing in the far background. Cropping the photo brings up a whole array of new questions.

Found Photograph Detail- Familiar Strangers Show- Matthews Gallery

Detail of previous photo

In a broader context the entire photo is a fragment. The man in the foreground’s stern expression stands alone, isolated from what happened before or after. Perhaps he cracked a smile a moment later, but this short glimpse of his day at the pool has a foreboding air to it.

“The surrealists used fragmentation as a means to knowledge, discovering significance in the fragment that had been concealed in the contextualized whole,” Mauer writes. It’s not hard to trace the progression of this thinking to Marcel Duchamp’s use of found objects, or to the Dada artists’ repurposing of vernacular photos in collages (more on all of that in an upcoming blog post).

In the end analyzing and relating to the “characters” in these photographs helps develop our skills in another field: humanism. It’s amazing how connected we can feel to a person we’ll never meet, and how powerful our feelings of empathy and sympathy can be when we exercise them. Look long enough, and you’ll start to imagine that these familiar strangers are looking right back.

Step into the shoes of a voyeur, detective, surrealist and humanist at FAMILIAR STRANGERS: Vernacular Photography, opening Friday, May 16. Also, make sure to check out our fascinating interview with four found photography collectors and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr for more gallery news!