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