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Photograph by unknown photographer, 1910s–1920s. Promised Gift of Thomas Walther

Other Pictures

Vernacular Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection

June 6–August 27, 2000

Accompanied by a publication

This compelling selection of about ninety vernacular photographs from the 1910s to the 1960s reveals the unexpected visions of anonymous amateurs. Cut loose from their original context but charged with the aesthetic spirit of their time, these fresh, accidental artworks were created as the camera emerged as a nearly ubiquitous, easy-to-use accessory of modern life. Although never intended for public display—most of the photographs in the exhibition were discovered at flea markets, in shoeboxes, or in family albums—these found images often bring to mind the work of such master photographers as Walker Evans, Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Diane Arbus.

Many of the works that were on view might be described as "happy accidents" or "successful failures"—fortuitous moments when the camera's lens captured aspects of character or images of beauty that the operator may not have intended. Among these is a double exposure in which a street trolley appears to trundle across an anonymous hotel room bed. In another, an old wooden house is consumed in a flash of light that seems to emanate from the window of a nearby car. A blurry, underexposed image of a woman posed before a fireplace fails as a literal likeness, yet succeeds as an accidental emblem of feminine mystique.

In 1909 Alfred Stieglitz, the dean of American art photography, warned amateur photographers not to take themselves too seriously: "Don't believe you became an artist the instant you received a gift Kodak on Christmas morning," he cautioned. Other Pictures challenges and broadens traditional assumptions about what constitutes a photographic work of art and celebrated some of its unknown yet decidedly gifted practitioners.