Many of us may be familiar with the concept of found poetry. It is a common enough phenomenon in literature, but for those who are not familiar it’s the idea that one “finds” groupings of words and rearranges them into a new and unique narrative. In other words, the sentences may be from various media (ads, posters, overheard conversation, newspaper headlines etc.) but the “art” of the whole is given birth by way of the poet’s “use” of those found words and phrases. In this article, I want to explore the idea of applying that concept, albeit loosely, to the world of photography and, more particularly, street photography. My theory is that by way of making use of found photography we can hone our ability to read a photograph – a most critical skill for a successful photographer.
When we make our own photographs we don’t really see them objectively. Some photographers are no doubt better at this than others, but I would argue that no one truly sees their own work devoid of the confluence of psycho-social phenomenon that we bring to our creative process, to say nothing of the actual memories of the photo-making moment. Yet, when we examine the works of others, we learn to read more carefully what is in front of us with less bias. We are, in short, more critical. So why not merely look at the artwork of others to learn this skill? Essentially, the answer is because we do not engage with the work of others to a degree that is conducive to this process. Additionally, we do not engage with it in the same way, either. When we create we initiate a part of the brain that is not as active when we merely “look” at art. In précis, if we manipulate our found photographs with the aim of “creating”, we are training those same metaphorical muscles to read photographs more acutely as an inherent part of the creative process.
If you’re convinced that you want to give this a try, I recommend scouting eBay for a small collection of 35mm slides. This is a great way to get your hands on some “found photography”. Of course, this is not the only way, and I am sure there are more modern (read digital) approaches that would also work well. For example, my dear friend, Jonathan Higbee, is working on a series of found photographs lifted from Google Earth. You might also try sampling from a video surveillance recording, too. The only things to be mindful of, really, are the legal issues. You will want to have either full copyright hold or a valid derivative claim so that the work you produce can be freely shown, if not sold, with your name on it.
Returning to the idea of using found 35mm slides, like the one above, this route is sure to provide you with unique work 99% of the time. Most of the slides you will find will be amateur slides, again like the one above. There are likely no copies. Plus, you are buying a genuine positive. You will be able to make high-quality scans to further manipulate or reproduce. As an added bonus, the people “found” in the images are likely dead or highly unlikely to ever find themselves among your work. Of course, using some sensitivity and common sense here is prudent. Images that were clearly made inside a private home and are of a highly personal nature may be best not used. Photographs taken in public or that are not compromising should be seen as fair game, especially given that they were legally sold. Bear in mind, I am not a lawyer and am not offering legal advice.
When we read the photograph above, in this way, we see that there is a lot to read across the frame. It may be that this is not a great photograph, I’m not making any claim in this regard, but we can also read to understand why it is not a good photograph, which is just as valuable in the learning process. The woman, frozen between bites, peers into the lens and into us, the viewer, also. This gives the right side of the frame strong interest. It confirms that we are, in fact, looking at candid candy! The man with the camera, on the far left, works to drag our visual attention across the entire frame. He also adds irony to the scene. The matching white frame sunglasses speak to the relationships and the times. For one lady, only her white button earring speaks for her personality, her individuality. Taken, likely, with a plastic lens, the sharp center focus vignette draws us into the center of the frame and enhances the “trance” effect. The whole image works to confirm Sontag’s claim that all photographs, eventually, gain aesthetic value by way of their sheer age – by time alone. Finally, we must consider if it is a good image? Would we want to appropriate it for our own? This is the question that fuels our learning here in a way that is distinctly different from the process of evaluating our own work.
So, what do you end up with in the end? Well, that depends on your imagination. Higbee is constructing photo essays. In this way, his artistic input shows as much in the whole as it does in each individual photograph. In terms of presentation, I think it has to be this way. Surely it would be odd to present individual found photographs as one’s own. Yet, we might find value in the mere finding of the photographs in relation to our main goal of training the eye. That is, we don’t need to do anything more, really, than the process of selecting them “as if” we were editing photographs to put forward into the world. At this point the value is gained. Whether we do put them forth is another matter entirely. Again, one might, in essay form, if that appealed to you as a separate project. In my own case, I’ve never published or presented found photography beyond this article. I have, however, sifted through thousands and thousands of amateur 35mm slides over the years in an attempt to both make a great discovery and to train my eye. I have no regrets.
In the end, our objective is to look at strange photographs with a creatively critical eye. In doing so we are sure to energize our own behind-the-lens experience, as well as have a little fun digging through mystery images and trying out something new in terms of creating. Compile the essays, if only for yourself, as a learning exercise. In no way is this process meant to replace the photographic act. I’m not saying you should sell your camera and take up found photography as a full-time engagement. Although, some poets have done just that!