Thursday, January 26, 2012

Orphan Photos and the Arts (part 2 - Getting Creative)

Last week I discussed the idea of using orphan images to get creative. This post discusses concrete examples of ways to use photos for inspiration, and in art and learning projects. Photos can come from your own family collections. You can also find interesting orphan photos at antique shops and garage sales.

Beware of Preservation and Retaining Provenance 

Before you begin, consider making copies of any orphan photos that you collect. Use the copies in your projects rather than originals. I used regular photocopies in the projects I show here, but you can also have prints made to achieve a different look. Keep originals using safe archives methods. Record everything you know about the photo, including who gave it to you and where you bought it. Even record if you don't know who the people depicted are. (Don't leave others guessing and thinking that you might know them.) You may want to try to learn more about the people depicted or even reunite images with appropriate families if they are not your own.

Looking for Images for your Project

You can certainly use you own identified family images in your art. Your own images make everything seem more personal. Using images of people who you suspect are members of your own family can add some extra sentiment to an art project. However, images of strangers can also give a nice feeling to your work. There is something to be said for regarding strangers as part of your own history; they are part of a long web of humanity that eventually made its way to you. The pictures you choose in your work can be there for beauty, a sense of a general history, or a more intimate family feel.

Some General Thoughts about Photos

You may choose images for projects that grab you because of a family connection, a friendly face, a sense of history / nostalgia. Alternately, you may seek images with commonalities that may even help tell a story. Perhaps there is something happening in your life that you want to highlight or contemplate further. Seek images that relate to your hobbies, interests and life events. For example, as part of "The Life in Context Project," my project partner Sue and I are focusing on food memories. To highlight our talks and workbook, I began digging for orphan images related to meals. This lead Sue and me to digging through our own photos to find us eating at our own family tables. I feel as if I have a new understanding of how food threads through our lives and also a fabulously illustrated book on the topic. The images would also be great for decorating my kitchen with large posters, imprinted on small tiles for an unusual backsplash, or in a homemade family recipe book. (Remember to include caption that indicates a photo is an "orphan" if it is one, especially in a family cookbook!)

Find a Muse

The confidence this unidentified woman exhibits in this photo inspires me and I keep her in my mind's eye
This is probably outside traditional archivist thinking...but the artist in me finds muses among my work. I once wrote about how I often grow fond of the people represented by some of the collections on which I work. I have been inspired by the lives of many New Englanders whose papers I have been lucky enough to process. Photographs can give me a quicker way to get to know someone. I do not necessarily need to read a diary or letters to feel as if I know a personality well enough for it to inspire me. One image can have a similar effect. Think like an artist. Find someone among your photos who inspires you and channel that feeling into your work.

I am also inspired by this unidentified, apparently loving, mother (or teacher). Her muse came in handy for this project.
I don't know who they are, but these images are implanted in my brain. I return to them often and use them in a lot of my work, so I can think about how they influence me.

Getting Jiggy with It

Photos can be laquered to tiles and used to decorate.
I often use tiles about doorways to add a little pizzazz
and with this project I've added a touch of history.
Okay, okay...I may be showing my age with that headline, but really, now the fun and fancy free part comes in. I asked my husband to purchase some tiles when he ran out to Home Depot the other day. Can't you just picture a whole bathroom tiled with these "heirloom image" tiles on the left? The history geek in me says that would be very, very cool. If anyone reading this grows inspired to do that and follows through, please send me pictures! I recently redid my bathroom, so that won't be happening around here.

I also had a leftover wood picture frame that I covered with decoupaged images. I left the images to dry on the table. My daughter bounced in from school and got very excited. This blog post took on a whole new meaning with her help. Kid project time! Old images are a great way to engage children and get them excited about history.

A little glue and creativity can go a long way. I'm envisioning future Christmas ornaments and valentines that my daughter can work on too.

So channel your inner muse, find a topic or an item that inspires you and get to work. If you do feel the creative muse, share her (or him) with us and share your photo art projects too.


  1. Thanks for this, Melissa. There is a great deal of inspiration here - both your clever ideas for projects and your wonderful muses.
    "Orphan photos naturally elicit a sense of history and wonder..." They most certainly do!

    I think these are wonderful examples of how these photos, which once undoubtedly meant so much to someone, can have a continued life.

    You may have seen this yesterday - another fun way to transform orphan photos :

  2. holy cow! I love those transformed cabinet cards!!! I do object to the use of "constipated" to describe the old images though. DD and I have planned another crafty afternoon. I think I may incorporated this idea! Thanks so much for sharing :)

  3. Thank you for this interesting entry, and for your blog in general! Great ideas. I also got your book on the Unofficial Family Archivist - wonderful! :)

    I found tumblr account yesterday that made. my. day. Not all of the images are orphan but I loved it anyway.

  4. Caroline, that site is just fantastic! I may have to submit something to it ;) Thank you for sharing. And who can beat the title and tagline? "My Daguerreotype Boyfriend - WHERE EARLY PHOTOGRAPHY MEETS EXTREME HOTNESS" (reverse sexism it may be, but it gave me a laugh)