Found photography

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Found photography is a genre of photography and/or visual art based on the recovery (and possible exhibition) of lost, unclaimed, or discarded photographs.

It is related to vernacular photography, but differs in the fact that the "presenter" or exhibitor of the photographs did not "shoot" the photograph itself, does not know anything about the photographer, and generally does not know anything about the subject(s) of the photographs.

Found photos are generally acquired at flea markets, thrift and other secondhand stores, yard sales, estate and tag sales, in dumpsters and trash cans, between the pages of books, or literally just "found" anywhere.

Looking at found photography[edit]

Much of the appeal of found photography is the mystery regarding the original photographer or subject matter.

Barry Mauer[1] lists four practices of looking that influence inferences made in regards to the origin of found photos; voyeurism, Sherlock Holmes' style deductive reasoning, Surrealism, and with the eyes of a cultural anthropologist. He describes the ideal found photography exhibit as inviting a viewer to sample all of these viewing practices in order to achieve two results: to force a viewer to consider the effect of their own perceptual process during their viewing and to build the widest spectrum of possible meaning within the limitations of found photography.

History of found photography[edit]

The history of found photography is not well documented because it most likely started as someone's hobby before being introduced to the art world, but even its first ventures into fine art are uncertain because the art community has not received found photography well, much like its predecessor found object art.

Found photography actually falls underneath the umbrella of found object art, which has its origins with Marcel Duchamp and his contemporaries in the 1910s. Since found photography utilizes found objects to generate artwork it is considered found object art. However, the found object art movement was about the decontextualization of art, where the form or shape of the artwork creates the meaning rather than the context. As such found photography treads a gray-line between found object art and collage because of its relationship between form and context.

Found photography lacks the three-dimensional quality characteristic of found object art but retains form as meaning since it is still a found object. Found photos also have meaning established by context that is a byproduct of being a photograph with an original narrative. However, the viewer is required to actively engage in viewing the photography, much the way they would found object art, in order to unearth this context as meaning that will forever be limited by its unknown origins.

Thus there is great debate over whether found photography can be considered found object art or if it is really a method of collage.

Researching found photography[edit]

Anonymous photographs and albums can be important sources for historical research. Crowd sourcing information is one of the methods that can be used for the determination of topographical sites, identification of represented persons and even the photographer. An illustrative example is the research connected with an album containing 399 albumen and salt prints from around 1860, resulting in the conclusion that the photographer was a so far unknown military doctor named Petrus Jan van der Grijp (1819-1897). Using this method a new pioneer of Dutch photography has been discovered. [2]

Found photography as art[edit]

As a relatively recent movement, there has been little debate over the artistic value of found photography. Categorizing found photography as found object art or collage broadens both the range of available arguments, and also the controversy. Whether or not found photography can be classified as art depends on the viewer's definition of art.

In Hegelian[3] terms found photography is not art because the artist who found the photo did not embed meaning or spirit into it.

According to Dona Meilach,[4] a found object artist in the 1960s, found object art, and in correlation found photography, is indeed art because of the artist's manipulation of the found materials. In the case of found photography, the way photos are exhibited by the artist affects the meaning viewers extract from them (refer back to Barry Mauer and Looking at Found Photography).

Some found photography artists include: Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese; two Italian photographers, founders of the collective * Cesura (photographers group) [1], that documented the U.S. economic crisis in Detroit using photos they found all over the city, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Joachim Schmid, Ted Adams; a Philadelphia photographer.

Found photography as a hobby[edit]

People are more likely to engage in found photography as a hobbyist or viewer looking at a hobbyist's collection. Unfortunately, these physical collections remain unknown while they require prior knowledge of its existence and geographical presence from viewers. However, with the creation of new online platforms for displaying photography there are now many online collections available for viewing. In fact the majority of these collections are based on viewer participation, where anyone with a found photograph can upload it for exhibition in the digital gallery. An example would be The Museum of Found Photographs, an open to the public Flickr page that pools members' found photos.

Filmmakers Lorca Shepperd and Cabot Philbrick[5] present an important point about found photography hobbyists in their documentary Other People's Pictures. They interviewed collectors around Chelsea Flea Market in New York City and concluded that found photography hobbyists usually collect pictures for two reasons: they like eccentric images of people doing odd things or wearing funny clothing, or they have personal reasons behind their choices so the photo collection becomes a validation of their history. In the both cases the hobbyist's reason becomes a unifying theme throughout his or her collection and this theme in turn becomes a way of looking at found photography. In this way it can be argued that found photography is art in the hands of professionals and amateurs alike.

In Argentina there is a facebook group dedicated to the collection of photographs found on the street called "Negativos Encontrados" with more than 23,000 members.[6] You may see a documentary based on "Negativos Encontrados [2]" in youtube.[7]


  1. ^ Mauer, Barry. “The Found Photograph and the Limits of Meaning.” Enculturation, Fall 2001.
  2. ^ Bool, Flip
  3. ^ Fowkes, William. “A Hegelian Critique of Found Art and Conceptual Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 37, no. 2 (December 1, 1978): 157–168.
  4. ^ Meilach, Dona Z. Collage and Found Art. New York: Reinhold Pub. Corp, 1964.
  5. ^ “‘Other People’s Pictures’ : NPR.”, n.d.
  6. ^
  7. ^ "". Archived from the original on 2017-09-06. Retrieved 2019-12-19.


  • Fowkes, William. “A Hegelian Critique of Found Art and Conceptual Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 37, no. 2 (December 1, 1978): 157–168.
  • Stribling, Mary Lou. Art from found materials, discarded and natural. New York: Crown, 1970.
  • Meilach, Dona Z. Collage and Found Art. New York: Reinhold Pub. Corp, 1964.
  • Ades, Dawn. Marcel Duchamp. World of Art. New York, N.Y: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

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