The term found photography can be used as a synonym for found photos: photographs, usually anonymous, that were not originally intended as art but have been given fresh aesthetic meaning by an artist’s eye.
“Found photography” can also refer more broadly to art that incorporates found photos as material, assembling or transforming them in some fashion. For example, Stephen Bull, in his introduction to A Companion to Photography, describes artist Joachim Schmid as “a key practitioner of ‘found photography.’”
Found photography in the sense “found photos” will be discussed below.
Anonymous non-art photographs also constitute vernacular photography under some of its current definitions. However, vernacular photography is generally discussed and exhibited as a group of related photographic genres meant to be studied or appreciated just as they are or were, without taking the photos out of their original historical contexts or giving them new aesthetic meaning.
Although found objects considered broadly have been a part of artistic practice since Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack (1914), found photos used analogously by artists are a far more recent phenomenon. Snapshots (ordinary family photos) were the first “vernacular photos [to be] discovered and reconsidered as art,” beginning with a series of books in the 1970s. An unusual collection from the 1980s is Sándor Kardos’s Horus Archives (1989).
Found photos were first exhibited in 1998. Douglas R. Nickel, curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present, was the first to begin to articulate what it means to “find” a photo:
[A]ctual snapshots are taken with objectives only peripherally related to those of high art. . . . Without discounting the importance of the constitutive social and technical factors that motivate this class of photographic object into being, we must grant that there is a fascination to certain examples that allows them a kind of afterlife, a license to circulate in other contexts. When the snapshot becomes “anonymous”—when the family history ends and the album surfaces at a flea market, photographic fair, or historical society—and the image is severed from its original, private function, it also becomes open, available to a range of readings wider than those associated with its conception.
The Metropolitan Museum’s Other Pictures: Anonymous Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection (2000), the work of a noted photography collector, demonstrated that found photos can meet the stringent standards of a sophisticated and photographically informed personal aesthetic. Thomas Walther has even asserted that—specifically in working with found photos, as opposed to his practice as a collector of art photography—his activity is that of an artist: “It's my own vision that I'm trying to find in the vernacular.”
In 2007, the National Gallery mounted The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson, which remains the most ambitious snapshot show to date. The Art of the American Snapshot was a chronology of snapshot styles and subjects from the first Kodak until the moment snapshots began to resemble those we know today. The curators did not use the term vernacular photography in characterizing their approach, but distinguished it from those of both Snapshots: the Photography of Everyday Life and Other Pictures; the museum director and the chief curator described the exhibition's purpose as “to reveal. . . fundamental aspects of American photography and American life” and to “[examine] the evolution of this popular art in America.”
Since The Art of the American Snapshot, U.S. museums and galleries have generally presented snapshots as vernacular photography, minimizing the aesthetic contribution of the collector or the curator. Snapshots have become a ubiquitous if modest presence in art institutions, but are not intended and do not function as art; they are documentation of social or photo history.
Although art institutions in the United States no longer conceptualize snapshots as found photography (i.e., as found photos in the technical sense), collectors of snapshots still do. The collecting community around New York’s Chelsea Flea Market has been documented in a film, Other People's Pictures, by Lorca Shepperd and Cabot Philbrick. The film illustrates the range of aesthetic approaches taken by collectors.
Found photography as a conspicuous art-world phenomenon has been largely limited to the United States: all major snapshot exhibitions have been mounted in American museums (in addition to the museum shows mentioned above, John Foster’s Accidental Mysteries, a self-curated traveling show, deserves mention). But the Internet has facilitated the growth of an international scene, permitting the exchange of ideas and photos beyond local flea markets and the like; eBay, Instagram, and especially Facebook are home to a lively global found-photo community. Since the mid-2010s, snapshots have been appearing at photo fairs and in galleries and small museums in Europe and Australia (and occasionally further afield). So far they are generally being positioned as found photos, rather than vernacular photography as in modern American museums.
Genres other than snapshots are less easily used as found photos. For example, although real photo postcards include snapshots printed on postcard stock, they are much less plentiful than snapshots (almost all of them were made during a relatively brief period). But here again aesthetic approaches are possible.
- Elkins, James (2011). What Photography Is. London: Routledge. p. 101. ISBN 978-0415995696.
'Found photography' usually means vernacular photos that have been discovered and reconsidered as art.
- "Snap Noir: Snapshot Stories from the Collection of Robert E. Jackson". Ackland Art Museum. 2013. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
Now removed from their original context of the family album and the private narratives that initially imbued them with personal relevance and value, these anonymous images of unknown provenance take on new meaning when reordered and recontextualized.
- Bull, Stephen, ed. (2020). A Companion to Photography. London: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 8. ISBN 978-1405195843.
- "MoMA Learning". Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved June 16, 2021.
Images by amateur photographers of everyday life and subjects, commonly in the form of snapshots. The term is often used to distinguish everyday photography from fine art photography.
- "In the Vernacular". Art Institute of Chicago. 2010. Retrieved June 16, 2021.
Vernacular photographs—those countless ordinary and utilitarian pictures made for souvenir postcards, government archives, police case files, pin-up posters, networking Web sites, and the pages of magazines, newspapers, or family albums—have been both the inspiration for and the antithesis of fine-art photography for over a century.
- Batchen, Geoffrey (2000). Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 57. ISBN 978-0262267892.
Well, perhaps we should start by considering what has always been excluded from photography's history: ordinary photographs, the ones made or bought (or sometimes bought and then made over) by everyday folk from 1839 until now, the photographs that preoccupy the home and the heart but rarely the museum or the academy. . . . Taken together, these ordinary and regional artifacts represent the troublesome field of vernacular photography: they are the abject photographies for which an appropriate history must now be written.
- Lanyon, Andrew (1974). Snap: A Family Album. London: Gordon Fraser.
- Rauschenberg, Christopher (1976). Drugstore Photographs. Portland, Oregon: Pair O’ Dice Press.
- Graves, Ken; Payne, Mitchell (1977). American Snapshots. Oakland, California: Scrimshaw.
- Jewell, Dick (1977). Found Photos. Self-published.
- Kardos, Sándor (1989). The Horus Archives. Budapest: AXON/László Bacsó.
- "Douglas Nickel". Brown University. 2021. Retrieved June 14, 2021.
- "Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present" (Press release). Retrieved June 14, 2021.
- Nickel, Douglas R. (1998). "The Snapshot: Some Notes". In Nickel, Douglas R. (ed.). Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. pp. 12–13. ISBN 9780918471451.
- "Other Pictures: Anonymous Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection". The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Press release). 2000. Retrieved June 14, 2021.
- "Slideshow of selected images from Other Pictures: Anonymous Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000. Retrieved June 14, 2021.
- Walther, Thomas; Fineman, Mia (2000). Other Pictures: Anonymous Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection. Santa Fe: Twin Palms. ISBN 9780944092828.
- Aletti, Vince (June 13, 2000). "The Call of the Wild". The Village Voice. Retrieved June 16, 2021.
The pictures at the Met, however, do come with a pedigree of sorts. They're all from the collection of Thomas Walther, a suave, 50-year-old, German-born New Yorker who, over the past two decades, has become a major player in the increasingly high-stakes world of fine-art photo collecting. [. . .] But because they've all been selected by an extremely sophisticated eye, the pictures in this collection can't help but echo work that's far from artless. [. . .] So it's not surprising that some of Walther's snaps recall the Bauhaus's off-kilter panache or Italian Futurist time-lapse or Russian Constructivist agitation. Walther was already trained to seek out these qualities at their most refined.
- Benson, Harry (July–August 1998). "The Great Collectors". American Photo. IX (4): 63.
- Guthrie, Anna. "Amateur Photography to be Spotlighted at National Gallery of Art in The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson, on View October 7 through December 31, 2007" (Press release). Retrieved June 14, 2021.
- Greenough, Sarah; Waggoner, Diane; Kennel, Sarah; Witkovsky, Matthew S. (2007). The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0691133683.
Each of these exhibitions presented many snapshots whose defects—abruptly cropped forms, double exposures, botched exposures, or even poorly articulated subjects—created odd but sometimes unexpectedly compelling images. By focusing on those works that Mia Fineman, curator of the Metropolitan's exhibition, dubbed 'successful failures,' these museums. . . gave greater weight and authority to the collector or curator who had the vision to pluck these gems from the formidable morass of snapshots than to the ingenuity or creativity of the photographers themselves.
- Powell III, Earl A. Director’s Foreword. In Greenough et al. 2007, p. viii.
- Greenough, Sarah. Introduction. In Greenough et al. 2007, p. 3.
- Shea, Andrea (July 17, 2015). "Why One Collector's Old Snapshots Of Strangers Matter To A Museum". WBUR. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
The curators [of Unfinished Stories: Snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Collection] say these accidental photos, along with [collector Peter J.] Cohen's other images, tell the story of photography in America that can't be ignored. 'We can't really study the field or think that we understand photography by limiting ourselves to the fine art world,' [Museum of Fine Arts curator of photography Karen] Haas said.
- "Representing: Vernacular Photographs of, by, and for African Americans". Portland Art Museum. 2017. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
Representing: Vernacular Photographs of, by, and for African Americans brings together studio portraits from an important North Portland family album, vernacular snapshots, and Polaroids to demonstrate the rich diversity of African-American life and experience from the late 1800s through the 1990s.
- "Other People's Pictures: Snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Gift". Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center. 2017. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
Most of the photographs are anonymous and capture moments in the lives of ordinary people, often depicting celebrations, vacations, and gatherings of family and friends. Individual images were chosen for their eclectic, idiosyncratic, sometimes humorous nature as well as for their subject matter, with a particular focus on the lives and activities of women.
- "Amateur Snapshots Provide Window to American Culture at Nelson-Atkins". Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. April 4, 2016. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
'This incredible exhibition of amateur snapshots depicts broadly shared aspects of everyday life,' said Julián Zugazagoitia, Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell CEO & Director of the Nelson-Atkins. 'It highlights the deep cultural importance of photography, a visual tradition that flourishes today in images that are made and shared in a variety of ways.'
- "Other People's Pictures". Other People’s Pictures. June 20, 2004. Retrieved June 14, 2021.
- Seabrook, Andrea (June 20, 2004). ""Other People's Pictures"". NPR. Retrieved June 14, 2021.
- Murray, Noel (December 8, 2004). "Other People's Pictures". The A.V. Club. Retrieved July 4, 2021.
Nearly all of [the interviewees] look at found pictures as a form of accidental art. . .
- "Exhibitions". Accidental Mysteries. Retrieved May 7, 2021.
- "Found Photography Sites". Free the Refills. n.d. Archived from the original on July 7, 2015. Retrieved June 23, 2021.
- "The Lost and Found Transfigured: Bootleg Photographs from the Collection of Jean-Marie Donat". Photography Now. 2021. Retrieved July 6, 2021.
- Cooper, Zoe (November 15, 2016). "Five Emerging Trends We Spotted at Paris Photo Fair". AnOther. Retrieved July 6, 2021.
Some of the most compelling photographic works at the fair [the 20th Paris Photo] were found by the artist—most often in a flea market—then recycled and repurposed into a new work. . . These artists breathe new life into old, otherwise forgotten photographs, and in the process encourage the viewer to question the work's authorship.
- "Patrick Pound: Photography and air 2016 (a collection of found photos" (Press release). n.d. Retrieved July 6, 2021.
[Artist Patrick Pound] upcycles images and objects that have been discarded. Cut loose from their original creator and purpose, Pound gives them new contexts and meanings.
- "Jean-Marie Donat, A Self Portrait of the 20th Century". Fotofestiwal. 2021. Retrieved July 8, 2021.
- The French collector Jean-Marie Donat, a "typologist of the snapshot," is an exception.
- Bogdan, Robert; Weseloh, Todd (2006). Real Photo Postcard Guide: The People's Photography. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press. p. 2. ISBN 978-0815608516.
- Sante, Luc (2009). Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930. Portland, Oregon: Yeti. p. 9. ISBN 978-1891241550.
The phenomenon began in 1905. . . [R]eal photo postcards continued to be produced, here and there, as late as the 1930s.
- Wolff, Letitia, ed. (2005). Real Photo Postcards: Unbelievable Images from the Collection of Harvey Tulcensky. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. ISBN 978-1568985565.
- Adès, Dawn, et al. (1999). Marcel Duchamp. New York: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0500204702
- Dean, Tacita; Ridgewell, Martyn (2001). Floh. Göttingen: Steidl. ISBN 978-3882436730
- Flickr: The Museum of Found Photographs Pool (n.d.) https://www.flickr.com/groups/47255139@N00/pool/.
- King, Graham (1984). Say “Cheese”: Looking at Snapshots in a New Way. New York: Dodd, Mead. ISBN 978-0396083542
- Green, Jonathan, ed. (1974). “The Snapshot.” Aperture 19:1. http://enculturation.net/3_2/mauer/index.html.
- Kimmelman, Michael (2006). “The Art of Being Artless.” In Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Life of Art and Vice Versa, pp. 29–50. New York: Penguin. ISBN 978-0143037330
- Mauer, Barry. “The Found Photograph and the Limits of Meaning.” Enculturation, Fall 2001. http://enculturation.net/3_2/mauer/index.html.
- Philbrick, Cabot; Shepperd, Lorca (2004). Other People’s Pictures. http://www.other-peoples-pictures.com/trailer.htm.
- Seabrook, Andrea (n.d.). “‘Other People’s Pictures’.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/2004/06/20/1964382/other-peoples-pictures.
- U.S. Copyright Office (n.d.). “Can I Use Someone Else’s Work? Can Someone Else Use Mine?” (FAQ). Copyright.gov. http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-fairuse.html.