What on earth was the photographer thinking?
A photographic exhibition called ghosts in the machine, comprising 95 anonymous and intriguing images from the 1860s to the 1970s, will open at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on 10 April.
The most prolific artists of the 20th century are unknown photographers. In the last 15 years a number of collectors worldwide have acquired remarkable collections of amateur photographs. These images, discarded for unknown reasons, have sometimes found a home where their failures become successes and the moments which they record have assumed an importance because of the discerning eye of their rescuer.
A headless body on a beach raises the question: is this a grim crime scene or a clever trick snap shot? Women in bushes, strange landscapes and family settings are just some of the subject matters from this private collection. Ranging in time from an 1868 albumen photograph through to a 1971 Kodak colour photograph, ghosts in the machine provides insight into the most homely and most popular of visual artefacts – the snapshot. Born with the medium itself though not gathering any real steam until the 1880s when Kodak introduced the Box Brownie (‘you push the button and we do the rest’), the snapshot has all but disappeared because of the rise of digital imaging. By 1898, 1.5 million roll film cameras were in the hands of the public and, as Doug Nickel, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, pointed out in 1998, ‘... the way lives were lived became entangled in the way lives were now represented.’ However, the tiny contact prints are no more, editing takes place instantaneously in the digital camera, there are less and less ‘miss-takes’ and less and less photo albums as families gather round the computer or mobile phone screen to flip through the latest images. In the future, will remarkable anonymous photographs from the late 20th and early 21st centuries be found at the flea market or on eBay or not found at all?
A collection of anonymous photographs places an emphasis on the collector and the collector’s eye. A number of remarkable collections have been put together over the last 15 years in Europe and North America. Each collection varies according to the interests of the collector and yet there are always haunting overlaps, as though all anonymous photographers anywhere in the world were compelled to engage in provoking the heady question in the viewer: ‘what were they thinking of?’.
The snapshot is part of the narrative thread of a person’s life and it is within the family photo album that such a shot can be best understood Anonymous photographs are supposed to remain private; they are about retaining the memory of an event for personal observation. Snapshots are small in size because they are supposed to be held in the hand or stuck into albums. The viewer must ask why were these strange and abstracted images taken at all and indeed kept?
These photographs were made purely for the pleasure of remembering some place or someone. Their original narrative has been lost but the collector is composing a new narrative. As viewers we add to these narrative possibilities.
ghosts in the machine, from a private Sydney collection, allows you to create your own scenario to the question, ‘What was the photographer thinking?’