This is the first installment of a new feature I think you’ll enjoy— an interview with collectors of vernacular photographs. Vernacular photography is a broad category that generally encompasses all pictures except fine art photos. Most often, vernacular photography refers to snapshots—just like yours and mine.
Our first participant is Rebecca Weisberg of Obscura Photo & Books. Rebecca is a librarian, collage artist and found photo collector based in Los Angeles. You might catch her sifting through flea markets and estate sales if you wake up early enough on the weekend. She sells vintage photographs through her website www.obscuraLA.com
How long have you had an interest in photography? Do you make photographs?
I’ve been interested in photography since I got my first camera at the age of 6. My grandparents came to visit and gave it to me, and I spent the entire trip taking blurry, off-kilter photos of my house, yard, and belongings. I remember going shelf by shelf taking pictures of all my possessions. I was enamored by the idea that I could chronicle my life and capture the things I saw for posterity—even if I wouldn’t have phrased it that way at the time. I don’t really take photos anymore, except on my iPhone—I have a couple of vintage cameras I love (a Holga and a Polaroid), but it can be such an expensive hobby so I haven’t used them in a while.
How and when did you start collecting in earnest?
About two years ago I was planning a trip to Paris, and as I was researching places to go I read about Images & Portraits. I had never heard of collecting found photos before, but I was intrigued, and going there immediately became the top priority of the trip. I spent way too long browsing through the images, and as soon as I came back to LA I started regularly trawling flea markets and antique stores for more photos.
What was the first photograph you purchased?
The first photograph I purchased was a shot of a snarling dog with a hand reaching in from out of frame. I got it in Paris at a tiny shop called Images & Portraits—it’s half photography studio and half vernacular photo store. It’s where I fell in love with found photos.
Do you collect contemporary photography or only historical photos? What is the approximate date of the “newest” of the photos in your collection?
Most of my photos are from the 1940s – 60s, but I’ll collect anything if I really like it. I think the most modern photos I have are from the 90s, and they tend to be Polaroids.
What drew you to photographs?
There are a few things I love about photographs—at the most superficial level, they’re visually arresting and can be stunning works of art, even in the realm of vernacular photography. There are some immensely talented amateur photographers whose names have been lost, but their photos live on. That’s another thing I love about it—the idea of preserving a piece of history. I’ve also always had a voyeuristic streak, and I love the way that snapshots give you a glimpse into peoples’ lives.
Do you have a certain theme in your collection?
I don’t—when I’m hunting through piles of photos at flea markets people often ask me if I’m looking for anything in particular, but there’s no particular subject or theme to my collection. I’ll buy anything that jumps out at me. That said, some of my particular favorites are photos with interesting or funny captions or that have been altered in some way. I love that they give you an even greater look into the lives of the people who created them.
Has your taste changed since you started collecting?
My taste has definitely evolved a bit since I started collecting—I bought a lot of photos in the beginning that I wouldn’t necessarily purchase today. Part of it is just the sheer number of photos I’ve seen now—it’s made me much more particular about what I buy, because I’ve developed a better sense of what types of photos you come across regularly and what are harder to find.
How have you decided on the art you collect and the direction your collection has taken? Was it planned from the start or has it grown organically?
It’s definitely grown organically—I started without any real plan and just started buying everything I liked. As I got more and more obsessed with collecting I started thinking about how I could make a living from it—eventually I want to open a store like Images & Portraits, but for now I’m selling on my website. Once I knew I wanted to start selling photos that allowed me to buy a lot more and getting a wider variety of images, which was a lot of fun.
What is your most recent acquisition? What qualities of this photo made you know it was right for your collection?
My most recent acquisition is a shot of a man in a Navy uniform sitting leaning against a palm tree. He’s wearing a lei, so I presume he’s in Hawaii, and it looks to be from the 40s. On the bottom he’s written “Watin for my love”. I love the look of the photo, but the caption is definitely what sold me on it. I love that it gives you more information about the subject, but also raises more questions than it answers—who is his love? Did she ever come? Did they get married and grow old together, or was it just a wartime fling?
What is your favorite photo in the collection right now?
My favorite photo changes on a daily basis, but at the moment it’s a shot of a young man in a striped shirt, with a beret and a cigarette, holding up what appears to be a swooning young lady. I love that’s so stylized and just a little offbeat. To me it looks like a still from a Wes Anderson movie, and I wish I could step into the photo and spend a day with them.
Besides photographs, is there anything else that you collect?
I’ve always had a problem with collecting way too many things—when I was a kid I collected stamps, marbles, fossils, rocks, you name it. I’ve definitely had to narrow my focus as an adult. Today I collect photography books—I spent a few years in the rare book trade and started acquiring first edition and collectible photobooks at that time. I also collect vintage Czech movie posters, because I love the aesthetic, and then I have a very small collection of ephemera such as old love letters, report cards, and the like.
There are people who have family photographs just like the ones you collect and don’t think there is any wider interest in them beyond themselves and their immediate family. What would you say to them?
One of the things that surprised me when I started collecting found photos is what a large and vibrant community there is. For every person who wanders past a table of photos at a flea market and says, “Why on earth would anyone want someone’s old photos?” there are five people standing at that table happily digging away. I personally don’t understand the impulse to collect coins, cars, or Beanie Babies, but to each his own!
I hope Rebecca has gotten you thinking about your family photo collection. What gems are in your albums?