Thursday, January 19, 2012

Orphan Photos and the Arts

Last year I posted about how to cull photos. That post generated a lengthy discussion about orphan images. One person who commented mentioned the value of using the materials for historic interpretation, which is something that I do regularly on this blog. One thing that did not gain too much buzz was the value of orphan photos for artistic inspiration. It is this second idea to which I am dedicating my next couple of posts.

I have collected many orphan photos for the "More Finds at the Local Antiques Shop" column in this blog. I have also spent time working as a professional photographer. I grew up "taking pictures" and loving the whole idea of them as both a piece of history and art. A little known fact about me is that I won an award in my high school as best artist in my class because of my own photography. (Ah! Perhaps the mention of this is another sign that middle age has indeed set in -- that time when one feels the need to reminisce about high school awards?) I retain an artist's sense of wonder.

The artistic side of me screams for release once in awhile. A few weeks ago  I decided to take some of my orphan images and I made a collage for myself. It is now framed and waiting for me to hang it somewhere.

I know none of the people in this collage and yet I feel as if I know them all. The images I choose for "More Finds at the Local Antique Shop" are ones that strike me as I thumb through boxes of photos. I might be called to them by the eyes of the subjects, their style of dress, or their activities...whatever caught my initial interest grows inside of me and I imagine what the lives of these people were like. In fact, I have such a propensity for imaginings that I am creating a class for children that will teach them how to "read" a photograph, discover as much "truth" about it as they can, and then creatively write about it. (It is my hope that this class will let kids flex some artistic brain cells. I also hope that it will ultimately help develop critical thinkers who can better discern the differences between fact and fiction because of their participation in the exercises.)

Orphan photos naturally elicit a sense of history and wonder if you examine them carefully. If one searches beyond the obvious, one can imbue additional value into an orphan photo by attaching some meaningful purpose to it. To put it simply: Writing and creating with orphan photos is a useful exercise for an individual's creativity. It is also of value to the anonymous object, re-attaching some meaning for its existence.

I still believe that one should not keep every unidentified photo, but one way to deal with orphan images is to creatively use them to make something beautiful and / or thought provoking. In my next post, I will discuss some things to look for in orphan photos so that you too can be creative with those images that have lost their context. I hope that you will share some of your own artistic endeavors.

Let me just say for those who may be concerned...I am not recommending all unidentified photos should be cut up and glued...I plan to give ideas for good practice in my next post, including the need to consider using copies for projects and a reminder that many orphan photos retain value despite the anonymity of the subject.


  1. Tess Keogh shared these ideas on Google+ about this blog post: "Whether you use the originals or scan them in to a photo editing program and make your collage - why not give it to the local library or a school or a senior assisted living residence. Any of the three could learn from and enjoy the photos and perhaps someone would recognize these orphans."

    1. Melissa, another venue for orphan photos that I've appreciated is the blogs where people have posted their antique-shop finds, along with any hints (such as photographer or notes on the back of the photo).

      Every so often, when readers put their heads together, some solid conclusions are reached, and an orphan photo finds its way back to family! Those "midwives" for orphan photos make me wish someone like that frequented the antique shops near my forebears' homes! I would just love to be the recipient of a long-lost family treasure like that!

  2. Loved this piece Melissa. I've also been attracted to old photos, particularly those that are found in lockets. You can find a great deal of these on ebay. I always wonder who the people were and why were they so beloved that someone kept their picture in a locket--and of course, ultimately what happened to them! It's the historian's, archivist's curiosity that creates stories for all of these things.

  3. yh, i like the collage of the different photos. I can see why you won artist of the year ;).