We'll do everyone a favor and share the incredible vernacular "found" photographs of Tattered and Lost, a kindred soul who over the last few years has produced an ongoing series of wonderful books drawn from what has to be one of the finest collections of snapshots in the country. Tattered and Lost flies under the radar…so we invited TL to open up a bit with a brief cyber-intereview. If you collect vintage photographs you will enjoy
Q: I love the photograph in Buckaroos and Buckarettes of the black cowpokes. I always wanted to be a black cowboy.
A: I know what you mean. I want to be a black cowboy too. I was thrilled when I found the shot!
Q: How did you begin collecting found photographs?
A. Actually the first photos I bought were of, I believe, German actors each holding the same urn. It was somewhere around ’71-72. I’d gone to Nevada City in the Sierra’s and was looking through an antique store. The only thing I found I could afford on my college budget were these two old photos. I think I paid a 50 cents or a dollar for each. They were cabinet cards and I imagine today they’d still sell for about a buck each if found in a bin. I was fascinated to think that these cards had somehow ended up in a store in the Gold Country of California. I always imagined them being from a theater troupe that toured the old West. They were just as likely to have come from a German immigrant who didn’t arrive here until the 1960s, but I like my story better. And the two old Germans are at the end of the first post I ever did at my blog on November 14, 2008.
Then for awhile I used to visit a little town called Port Costa, along the Carquinez Straight in Northern California, that at the time had a lot of antique stores. They had old cabinet cards and other photos for sale, cheap. By the time I moved to L. A. I had enough, along with my L. A. roommate’s photos, to decorate our living room wall. People would come in and see the shots and ask about the relatives. I’d laugh and say, “Haven’t a clue who they are.” At this point I wasn’t taking collecting serious, thus the stupidity of putting them on a wall that got the afternoon sun. Surprisingly they survived. And the reactions from the people who asked about them was generally the same. No comment. They really couldn’t understand hanging photos of unknown dead people on the wall. It was decades before I started collecting again.
Around ten years ago I started collecting with serious intent, the intent being to amuse myself. My best friend got me started by sending me some photos of a woman she determined was named Rosa. That sort of lit the fire. I avoided eBay for a lot of reasons. The prices were too high and I hated bidding on something, getting my hopes up, and having it snatched away by someone else. Plus it just didn’t feel as if I was “discovering” the image. You know what it’s like. That moment you spot something and your heart starts racing. You know only you are at that moment in love with the object and have to have it. That was easier to handle than thinking about people all over the world salivating over the same thing. I eventually broke down and started perusing ebay. Now if I find something I want I’ll think about it far too much and hope beyond hope that nobody else wants it too. I generally do not bid against someone. I can’t bare the heartache…or the inflated prices.
Now I’m deep into the obsession. I crave my next photo fix. Like you I’m basically late to the game, but trying to make up for lost time.
Q. I hate when I see photographs in a box in an antique mall labeled "instant relatives" as it cheapens them. What I like about your books is that they are thematic. I always collect with a specific notion or project in mind. Do you?
A. I agree about the “instant relatives” signs. I often have people walk by and snicker at the sign as I’m busily trying to sort through the bins. They’ll casually stop, pick up a few snapshots, then toss them back like flotsam and walk away laughing after trying to engage me with some silly remark. I smile and say, “Yeah, uh huh” then go back to sorting. I’m always happy to see they don’t “get it” so I don’t have to jockey for space while sorting.
I have to say that it’s really only recently that I’ve started refining my searches. I generally don’t leave the house with a preconceived notion of what I want. I get excited when I find something for one of my silly categories, like “people cutting cakes.” But that’s just for estate sales, flea markets, and antique stores. Ebay is a different matter. I do make a point of focusing on specifics when I search there, otherwise I’d be living in my car in a few weeks. I try to stay focused, but occasionally click on a seller who has something I like and the next thing I know I’m staring at a bunch of images on the screen and repeating over and over again, “I want this. You don’t need it. I know, but I want this.” I think you’re probably much better at staying focused than I am.
However, I do now find myself coming up with ideas for books that I’d like to create. And sometimes the idea for a book doesn’t come to me until I notice the similarity in some photos in my collection. That will focus me and I have to remind myself to not put a lot of pressure on myself to only find items that fit the parameters I’ve set. I’ll just end up coming home from the out-and-abouts feeling I wasted my time. I figure instead I’ll just wait to see what I find because eventually some of those items might coalesce into a new idea for a book. Basically for me it’s a crap shoot. Thrilled if I find something I consider great, but happy if I find an old snapshot of the guy I named Ernie. Just happy to bring home little treasures.
Q. Can you pick "an Ernie" and explain what makes a great Ernie?
A. Ahh, Ernie. Ernie is a real fellow, but I have no idea what his name is. Several years ago, on Christmas Eve, I was at one of my favorite antique stores with a friend who’d come for Christmas. Together we started finding photos of this one very ordinary looking fellow, himself surrounded by Christmas. I ended up doing a four day post about him called “One Man’s Christmas.” A reader asked if she could call him Ernie. I said yes, and the name stuck.
Over the next few years I’d always look for photos of Ernie, hoping to construct more of his life. Eventually all I could find were photos of his wife and kids so I added those to the collection. Ernie now is a perfect example of the saying I came up with a few years ago when someone asked me what vernacular photography is. I thought for a moment then said, “Photographs of the ordinary by the ordinary.”
I often tell people about the time a woman in an antique store indirectly told me, as I sorted through a bin, that what I was doing was disgusting. Where she saw only photos of dead people, I saw photos of life. Collecting these images is saving some of the history of the everyday folks who go through life unnoticed.
And collecting these old images is as close as I’ll get to time travel.
The Five volumes of the Tattered and Lost series are available from Amazon HERE
The Tattered and Lost Blog, which is essential, is HERE