Found snapshots in ‘Picture Taker’ develop in the imagination of readers

Every picture in “Picture Taker: A Collection of Found Snapshots” tells a story, but readers won’t know quite what each is.

That’s just fine by author Kevin Duffy, an Atlanta art, antiques and oddities dealer who curated the photographs from his personal collection and created the 110-page softcover book on his kitchen counter after the pandemic shut down his selling at out-of-town art shows.

“Picture Taker’s” 200-plus images have a mystery about them. To Duffy, that’s a large part of the appeal. They spark questions while providing precious few answers.

Who are these people and what are their stories? How can some of the pictures be so touching while others are just so plain odd? How did these very personal snapshots wind up orphaned, turning up in flea markets and online marketplaces such as eBay?

Duffy senses a strong connection between these anonymous images and the self-taught art he deals through Candler Arts, which pitches its selection online as “unusual, offbeat, funky, old.” He launched the enterprise after wrapping a 25-year Atlanta Journal-Constitution newsroom career in 2008.

“The found amateur photos I like are imperfect, surprising, mysterious and a bit strange,” Duffy says. “Those are qualities that also help define the best self-taught art. A few friends that collect self-taught art also were collecting oddball snapshots made by unknown photographers. That’s why I started looking for them.”

Over the past decade, he has carefully assembled a picture collection numbering “in the high hundreds” that spans from the turn of the 20th century to the 1980s.

They are both lost and found.

“Most of the photos I buy are on eBay, which has a huge number of discarded snapshots for sale, 99 percent of which are uninteresting,” the Inman Park resident says. “Just one of the sellers I follow has more than 57,000 photos listed. I don’t have the patience to look through a box containing hundreds of loose photos [at, say, at an antiques mall], so I pay a little more for the convenience of searching on my computer when I have the time.”

A website that spurred his interest in vernacular photography early on is John Foster’s Accidental Mysteries. The Missouri collector has mined his collection for an exhibition of the same title that’s toured to more than a dozen museums nationally, including Chicago’s Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

Unlike, say, many postcard collectors, Duffy doesn’t collect by geographic sites or subject matter.

“I’m an eclectic collector,” he says. “The image just has to be compelling to me for some reason and old.”

If art is in the eye of the beholder, as the old saw goes, so is the art of the found snapshot. In the self-published “Picture Taker” ($35, available via Amazon and Candler Arts), Duffy doesn’t tell readers what to think about these sundry images. In fact, the book is terse: an introduction under 350 words; occasional details he’s transcribed from the back of some images; a brief literary quote here and there that somehow seems to fit. The author intentionally leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination.

Producing the book was an act of imagination for Duffy, as well.

“Creating a book was a new endeavor for me, the work of an amateur,” he writes in the introduction. “But that seems fitting given that [these] photos were taken by dozens of individuals whose names we’ll never know.”

Here, Kevin Duffy shares his impressions about a handful of the book’s snapshots:

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

“Love can make us do strange things. The woman originally in this photo was cut out and replaced. So now the substitute woman has taken what she considers her rightful place at the table with her man. If life isn’t going exactly as planned, just change the picture.”

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

“There are tens of thousands of old photo-booth portraits but few are lovely enough to transcend the form. This one does. The brothers are beautiful, and their expressions are pure. Their faces glow without any hint of artifice. The effect is powerful.”

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

“Grandma stands demurely for her portrait, but the grandkids are having none of it. Their contortions prompted by this photo moment are in sharp and humorous contrast to her pose. She’s blissfully unaware of what the camera has unleashed next to her.”

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

“America is in love with its pet dogs. And when one passes it’s a big deal, as evidenced by the numerous pet cemeteries with elaborate headstones. But rarely is there a funeral befitting a hero with flags, flowers and youngsters dressed in their Sunday finest.”

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

“This photograph is about 100 years old but it has a modern sensibility. The two girls could be posing for a music video. The girl on the left projects confidence, even defiance. The other girl’s pose looks like a dance move. Wonder what she’s hearing.”

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

“Old snapshots sometimes include written information that helps explain what’s shown. ‘Bonnie Jean Dunn 3-16-65 6-3-65′ is typed at the top of this photo. There’s a fuss and the people look distressed, as if they know Bonnie Jean’s life will be tragically brief.”

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Duffy

“Costumes and play-acting were an important part of this California girl’s life in the 1960s. Other images in the series show her in staged scenes that border on strange. In one, her hair is bleached white as she bends to hold a flower. Hollywood’s version of beauty in that era seems to have deeply influenced her.”


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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