Thursday, July 19, 2012

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A few days ago I wrote about Russell Ries and the cigar box full of old photos he'd acquired at a flea market. That prompted me to dig out a small stash of snapshots I found at a junk shop in Reno back in 1994. My favorite is the one shown above. I love so many things about it -- the woman's festive outfit, her vivacious face and body language, the handwritten "GiRLS" with the lowercase "i," and so on. When I first saw it, I remember thinking, "That's no girl. That's a woman." I wondered what had happened to her; I still do.

When I bought this photo and a few others back in ’94, I did so sort of on a whim. I had the instinct to collect old, interesting things, but I was young and broke and hadn't yet figured out what sorts of things I wanted to collect (or, as I've since discovered, what sorts of things would collect me). I was sort of casting about in search of my niche, my collector's identity. "Oh, maybe I'll collect old paperback novels" or "Hey, these old snapshots are cool -- maybe that's what I am, a photograph collector!"

So I bought several photos that day. The shop in Reno had a big pile of them, and I spent a bit of time picking out the ones I liked best. Here's another one (for all of these, you can click to enlarge):

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I love old-school country bars and taverns, and this one looks like it's right up my alley. And look at those faces -- I totally want to have a beer with them! In my fantasy world, this bar would be in Wisconsin (I have a thing for Wisconsin taverns), but the two Utica Club signs on the wall suggest that this place was probably located in upstate New York. Wherever it was, I hope it's still there. Next round's on me, guys.

Next up we have a proud woman and, I'm assuming, her son:

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My god, look those slacks, that chest and shoulders, that posture -- they don't make guys like that anymore. You think maybe he'd just bought that car, and the photo was to commemorate the occasion?

I don't always respond all that strongly to photos of children, but I remember smiling the moment I saw this one:

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I really like how everyone's attention is focused on the girl who's holding the … well, what is she holding? Pick-up sticks? Something else? In any case, everybody seems to be completely oblivious to the camera's presence, which often makes for the best photos.

One of the photos I acquired that day ended up being repurposed. I cut out the center of it and mounted it in the dial of an old phone I had recently bought (another thing I thought I might collect):

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I decided his name was Otis, and I really liked the way he spun around when I dialed a number on the phone. Not a bad little art project, although I now feel bad for having destroyed a photograph.

I'm no photo expert but I know what I like, and I like these shots a lot. Maybe I dote on them a bit because they were the first discarded snapshots I ever purchased, but they really do strike me as excellent photographs. They're not technically perfect, but they all have really nice compositional elements, at least to my eye. I'm just as smitten with them today as I was back in 1994.

After I acquired these photos, I got in the habit of looking for old snapshots at flea markets and antiques shops. But I never found any that I liked as much as those first ones, so I repeatedly found myself thinking, "No, these aren't as good as the ones from Reno -- I'll pass." After a few months of that, I decided maybe I wasn't a photo collector after all and moved on to other collecting pursuits. (Soon thereafter, in September of 1996, I found the Manhattan Trade School report cards, which eventually formed the basis of Permanent Record.)

But I still love those snapshots I found in Reno. Who were the people in these photos? What happened to them? How did the photos find their way to ratty little shop in Nevada?

If you can answer any of those questions, let me know.

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