The Face in the Lens: Anonymous Photographs


The introduction essay “Being Human” by Alexander McCall Smith reiterates Barthes ideas about the photograph as momento mori and the power that lies in photographs of strangers verse photographs of loved ones.

“Because we do not know the subjects we are not distracted by memories of the particular, and are drawn, instead, to what the photograph says about people and their ways, about the human condition. It is this that explains the poignancy of old anonymous photographs: they show us in all our human vulnerability. Our aspirations, our beliefs, our sense of ourselves are all revealed – but all of this is shown to be transient, impermanent ” (7).

The collector and author Robert Flynn Johnson also has an introductory essay in the book titled “Whole in One.” This essay begins by comparing the act of taking a great photograph akin to an amateur golfer achieving a hole in one; an improbable occurrence but one that happens often enough if we take enough photographs. This book collects photographs that are equivalent “hole in ones” and presents them according to theme. Chapters include Immaturity, Masculinity, Femininity, Compatibility, Celebrity, Singularity, Activity, Festivity, Adversity, and Inevitability.  One of the issues with found photographs is that they lack context. Arranging the photographs by subject provides an artificial order to the images and the chapters consist of some imaginative groupings. The names of the chapters are creative and more engaging than if they were put into more traditional categories.

After looking at this book, my main take away was the divide between the photo album and the lone image. The most interesting part of a photo album or scrapbook is the context that the whole provides. The parts that make up the whole may be unidentified photographs but contextually the group of materials offers much more information than the single image. Johnson has provided a framework for the lone photographs to exist in – to become part of his collection which can then be arranged by theme. The subjects of the photographs are similar, but the people in them will never correspond to each other in the way that a small photo album collection can. Both the lone image and the photo album collection have stories to tell, but one is much broader and relies more on visual appreciation, while the other can tell a more detailed story about a particular family or group of individuals at a particular time in history.



I’ve just started using Learnist. It seems to be a way to bookmark websites and create digital index cards and then put them in order. The order can be rearranged. I’m hoping this could be helpful with research thought organization and keeping track of ideas and websites.

The following board is titled “Behind the Scenes” and I’m using it to keep track of a thread for research on my MA thesis related to Vik Muniz’s “Verso” series which takes the back of famous works of art as its subject.

Behind the ScenesLearnist

Footprints in the snow…


An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. A bit of fiction to break up lots of reading non fiction. I thought the book was a fun read. I like art. The following bits of dialogue reminded me of the reading I should be working on for a project on Vik Muniz’s Verso series, a sculptural set of works that are recreations of the backs of famous paintings and photographs. I like how one of the characters here breaks down the elements of a painting.

Dialogue from page 81:

“Momentary objects of desire.” Lacey was cornering him, in a friendly way, and she could tell he was rethinking.

“It’s true,” he continued, “that both you and paintings are layered. You, in the complex onion-peel way, dark secrets and all that. Paintings operate in the same way.” He didn’t say anything more.

“Uh. Hello? Go on,” said Lacey.

“Well, first, ephemera and notations on the back of the canvas. Labels indicate gallery shows, museum shows, footprints in the snow, so to speak. Then pencil scribbles on the stretcher, usually by the artist, usually a title or date. Next the stretcher itself. Pine or something. Wooden triangles in the corners so the picture can be tapped tighter when the canvas becomes loose. Nails in the wood securing the picture to the stretcher. Next, a canvas: linen, muslin, sometimes a panel; then the gesso–a primary coat, always white. A layer of underpaint, usually a pastel color, then, the miracle, where the secrets are: the paint itself, swished around, roughly, gently, layer on layer, thick or thin, not more than a quarter of an inch ever – God can happen in that quarter of an inch – the occasional brush hair left embedded, colors mixed over each other, tones showing through, sometimes the weave of the linen revealing itself. The signature on top of the entire goulash. Then varnish is swabbed over the whole. Finally, the frame, translucent gilt or carved wood. The whole thing is done.”

Suspended Conversations by Martha Langford

The author of Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums, Martha Langford, began the book as part of her dissertation research at McGill University in Montreal. The book is based around a collection of photo albums held at the McCord Museum of Canadian History. Langford’s argument is that conversation is a key part to experiencing photo albums; without a person who can activate the album, the album has lost its original purpose and meaning. As Langford states in the first chapter:

Voices must be heard for memories to be preserved, for the album to fulfill its function. Ironically, the very act of preservation – the entrusting of an album to a public museum – suspends its sustaining conversation, stripping the album of its social function and meaning (5).

Also in the introduction Langford points out that photographs in an album are of worth to researchers not for their recording of place names, but for portraiture, which in turn leads to interest in relationships (7). Through studying an album the viewer begins to see relationships. Viewers are “lobbed back and forth by the album’s cross-references and connections. Links between pictures, whether by place, date, costume, pose, composition, physical resemblance, or placement on the page, demand to be checked” (15). This sounds familiar and is how I’ve experienced the photo album I’m currently digitizing at work. There are clusters of photos from one event spread throughout two photo albums. Similar people recur as well as dates and locations. This indicates that the photo album, like memories, is a jumble, and not arranged as orderly as it may first appear. There are multiple gaps. In some cases multiple duplicates of uninteresting moments, and a lack of representation for a multitude of more important moments (6).

I’m looking forward to reading more from this book about photo albums and approaches for interpretation. There seem to be a few chapters that cover the photo album more broadly and a few that look quite specifically at albums from the McCord Museum.

For further reading on the photo album in the archive and how scholars might use them see the blog post Memory and Absences: The Challenges of Interpreting Scrapbooks and Photo Albums from Educating Women: Blog of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education at Bryn Mawr College

Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes


p. 82 “Always the Photograph astonishes me, with an astonishment which endures and renews itself, inexhaustibly.”

I recently read Camera Lucida by Barthes on a train ride from Philly to Washington DC. I’m researching the broad topic of photography for about three projects at the moment. For one project I’ve started looking at articles and books on vernacular photography and have found Barthes mentioned several times. In Camera Lucida, Barthes is inspired to write about photography by an image of his mother who recently passed. (His mother died in 1977, Camera Lucida was published in 1980.) Barthes never reveals the image to the reader. He states that the image would only interest the reader in that it was an image taken in the past (studium), it wouldn’t have the emotional impact (punctum) that it does for him.

I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound (73).

There are photographs reproduced in the book. The Stock from the author’s collection is of a boy and a girl standing on either side of a seated older man. Barthes informs the reader that the boy was his father. He uses this image to discuss the influence of lineage. “Lineage reveals an identity stronger, more interesting than legal status – more reassuring as well, for the thought of origins soothes us, whereas that of the future disturbs us, agonizes us…”


The book consists of a series of short meditations on what photographs are and how they affect viewers. Barthes uses personal photographs as examples, but also photographs of people that he does not have a personal tie to. If you are looking for reasons to study, exhibit, scan, promote etc. amateur photography, especially that which exists in non digital formats, Barthes isn’t a bad place to start. The following are some quotes that I found particularly interesting, engaging, and helpful to studying  vernacular photography.

…the age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumed as such, publicly…(98)

Usually the amateur is defined as an immature state of the artist: someone who cannot – or will not – achieve the mastery of a profession. But in the field of photographic practice, it is the amateur, on the contrary, who is the assumption of the professional: for it is he who stands closer to the noeme of Photography (98-99).

noeme = essence of Photography “…in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past” (76).

“The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been” (85).

…the realists do not take the photograph for a ‘copy’ of reality, but for an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art. To ask whether a photograph is analogical or coded is not a good means of analysis. The important thing is that the photograph possesses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time. From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation (88-89).

Another important aspect of amateur photography that Barthes takes into account is the physical objectness of a photograph.

“The only way I can transform the Photograph is into refuse: either the drawer or the wastebasket” (93). Today one could digitize the object and then circulate it online. It then loses it’s objectness and becomes simply an image. Barnes continues, “…even if it is attached to more lasting supports, it is still mortal…Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes; there is nothing left to do but throw it away” (93).

Barthes also discusses “the air (the expression, the look)” (107), that is apparent in portraits. He points out that the air of a person is not present in all images of a person. Indeed sometimes people barely look like themselves in photographs. Is it possible to see the air of a person in a photograph if you never knew the person? Barthes writes that it is, but is harder to find in amateur photographs.

I can be frustrated for life of the ‘true image.’ Since neither Nadar nor Avedon has photographed my mother, the survival of this image has depended on the luck of a picture made by a provincial photographer who, an indifferent mediator, himself long since dead, did not know that what he was making permanent was the truth – the truth for me (110).

Another issue Barthes discusses at length is that all photographs remind viewers of death – the person in the photo is dead or will one day be dead. This seems to add agency to the viewers experience. Hopefully they may do something and capture it on film before they die.

Why I Volunteer

I enjoy volunteering. I’ve volunteered at art museums, libraries, and libraries in art museums. Currently I volunteer approximately six hours a month at the Center for Local History at Arlington Public Library in Arlington, Virginia. I process archival collections at work and I volunteer to process archival collections in my free time. Here are some reasons why.

To learn how other organizations operate.

When I was little I loved learning about my classmates home life. They always did things differently. There were different rules, parental styles, foods, and different types of residencies. I am a sucker for behind the scenes tours. Volunteering is a great way to get to know how an organization works.

To learn new skills and ways of doing things.

I don’t know how to do everything and often I learn by doing. Different organizations process collections and create finding aids differently. For me part of volunteering in an archive is to arrange and describe collections according to an institutions needs and rules. Sometimes you are at an archive and they want you to remove every staple in a collection, and sometimes they want you to do some major MPLP and just get papers into folders and boxes. It is important to be flexible and open to learning new ways of doing things.

To step outside of my comfort zone.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a “people person,” but I love interacting with people. My full time job keeps me far away from the public so volunteering provides opportunities to interact with patrons. The Center for Local History is currently facilitating community scan-ins where residents of the Green Valley/Nauk neighborhood are encouraged to bring their old photographs to public events and library staff will scan them using equipment provided by the Library. Donating scans to the Library is optional. I’ve had two opportunities to volunteer for this project, the first attending a block party and the second a blood drive. Both occasions broadened my knowledge of an Arlington neighborhood that I wouldn’t otherwise know about and provided an opportunity to step outside of my sheltered lonely comfort zone and talk to patrons.

To share expertise.

Not everyone volunteering or working in an archive has the same skills / knowledge / or expertise. I was lucky to work with another volunteer at the Fairfax County Public Library’s Virginia Room. He was the subject matter expert and I was the processing expert. Together we were able to accomplish more than either of us could have alone. Including the arrangement of a collection, a finding aid, and an exhibit with a digital component.