This is the TV in my grandparents' home where I used to watch cartoons during childhood visits. I'm not sure why someone photographed that piano or how it wound up later being saved in an album. I just know it's a beautiful and somewhat creepy image.
Here's another photo of the same room with a slightly newer TV.
Talk about timing. Some street photographers would give their left nut to capture that type of chance juxtaposition. But whoever took this photo, I doubt they paid much attention to the arrangement. It was just a snapshot of 2-year old Sarah buried in an old album.
This one looks like something out of Eggleston's Guide. It's wonderfully descriptive yet seems to describe nothing.
My grandmother's albums aren't unique. I think anyone wading through their own albums could find similar gems. These photos are out there. The twist is in the reinterpretation.
The digital equivalent to searching Granny's old albums (from a slightly more gotcha angle) might be Awkward Family Photos.
AFP is entertaining but that site is just the tip of the iceberg. The internet has turned archive mining into a cottage industry. One can find science fair projects, unhappy hipsters, stock photos, unusable stock photos, Mars images, dads on vacation, brokers with their hands on their faces, sad businessmen at bars, contract killers, disguises of the Soviet Bloc, or just awesome people hanging out together. Any type of photo you can think of has probably been collected and sorted by someone online. The common denominator is that they're being gathered and shown in a new or unintended context.
Of course this is nothing new. Reinterpretation in the art world has been going on since before my grandmother's childhood. Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Warhol, etc, all the way through postmodernism to the present, each new round greeted with fresh skepticism.
Photographers were somewhat late to the party. They have always tinkered around with collage and montage but it wasn't until the 70s that the mouth really began to eat the tail. Shore's All the Meat You Can Eat, Szarkowski's From the Picture Press, and Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip got the ball rolling but it wasn't until Evidence exploded on the scene that full-on reassessment became widely accepted as a creative act (followed shortly by Champion Pig).
That was 34 years ago. The pace seems to have lagged since. We've had Prince, Baldessari, a minor burst of found photo compilations, and a few outliers like Boring Postcards and the KesselsKramer books. But the majority of photo projects in recent decades have been created the old fashioned way, with a camera.
With rise of the internet the balance may be shifting. If ever a tool was made to assist reinterpretation it's the web. Suddenly Granny's album has become modeling clay. Images are thrown online, copied, reshuffled, Tumblred, Twittered, sliced and diced. Such reinterpretations have become a cottage industry.
In fact I'd argue that reinterpretation threatens to overtake generation as the dominant creative act in photography. "In the digital age, anyone can make a picture," says Alec Soth, "but it does take some knowledge to edit a project." When we look back at our era in 50 years, we may not remember particular images at all. Instead we'll note how they were cleverly sorted and recontextualized.
If the obstacle of copyright hasn't yet been solved, it's at least been comfortably subverted for now. Maybe steamrolled is a better word. Back in the 1970s Sultan and Mandel got around rights issues by using images from the public domain. For better or for worse, most online images are now treated as de facto public domain. The case of this image is typical.
I think there is still a difference between reproduction rights in the printed world —the traditional ticket to archived collections— and the internet. Some of the Tumblrs listed above would never survive copyright scrutiny if printed. Yet online they seem to get a hallpass. Look at the images in this post. I'm showing them with a photo credit but I have no copyright. Could I do this in a book? Probably not, although I might get away with publishing an old family photo.
The elephant in the room is Google Street View. Five years ago it didn't exist. Now we're approaching the moment when every public passage on the planet will have been photographed. The natural question is what's left to shoot?
One way forward is to examine the path that got us here. In the last few years several Street View reinterpretations have been spawned, some of which have been analyzed here, here, and many times right here among other places. One can argue back and forth about the merits of such work but it seems clearly contemporary. Next month Street View screenshots will be exhibited at MOMA. I think the trend is set, and I expect to see a surge in reinterpretive projects in the next few years from all corners of the web.
Some might ask, isn't reinterpretation the same as curating? And if so, hasn't that been around forever? But I think reinterpreting is a different animal than straight curation. The Family of Man or Toward a Social Landscape or New Topographics were curations. They were organized around a theme, but they left the original meaning and authorship of the photos largely intact. In contrast, a Street View candid in ANAP is completely stripped of its original context. It no longer has value as a mapping aid. It's a pure stand alone photograph plucked from Google's family album. That's where we're headed.
What about photo blogs? I think there has always been a tension in the blog world between aggregator and generator, between offering new content vs. linking to it elsewhere. My favorite blogs do both, but most fall into one camp or the other. Maybe it's my imagination but the trend seems to be heading toward reinterpretation. The increased use of Tumblr, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter —platforms mostly comprised of links and relinks— are the most obvious examples but the tendency seems widespread.
Admittedly I have a strong personal bias toward generators. I find it hard to take seriously anyone who writes about photography without making images themselves. It's a prejudice I know, but one I find hard to overcome. My secret fantasy is for every photoblogger out there to stop analyzing for one day and show ten recent photos of their own. Seeing ten photos would give me more insight into someone than reading ten years of their writing.
Unless of course they've been showing photos all along. In that case an alternative would be to choose ten snapshots from an old family album.