Seeing is revealing

Anonymous visions from the most democratic art.

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As you look through that stack of fading black-and-white snapshots from a box in the attic, you notice that the young men wear hats and suits and have their hair slicked back; the women seem coy or shy; cars are rectangles on wheels and bathing suits cover up a whole lot. All afternoon, you wander through this collection of frozen moments like a kind of personal family museum. And somewhere among them, a shot catches your eye, one made surprising by a quirk of light, a strange tilt of the head or the way houses, clouds and shadows line up. Who took this one? Nobody seems to know, though when you think about it, it’s like a work of art.

The revolution in instant nostalgia brought on by the Kodak camera, purchased in the first decades of the 20th century by millions of everyday people and aimed by them at any and everything in sight, changed the whole imaginary ballgame. For one thing, it became clear that anyone could point and click this handy contraption at the world and use it to make something interesting, even exciting, to look at.

Eventually, the accidental, the ingenious and the amazing started cropping up like four-leaf clovers among endless photos of babies, vacations, weddings, Christmas mornings, Halloween costumes, graduations, girlfriends and gags. And when some of these Sunday snapshooters couldn’t help but notice what famous photographers such as Man Ray, Walker Evans or Horst were up to, when they allowed themselves to follow an aesthetic model of any kind, they were no longer just fetishists of memory like the rest of us.

Other Pictures, a sampling of Thomas Walther’s collection of anonymous photographs, lets us in on a new trend in connoisseurship: the discovery of creative genius where we might not think to look for it. The small black-and-white snapshots in this book connect up, intentionally or not, to the tradition of art photography: surrealism, futurism or poetic realism. Some of them remind us of renowned (expensive) works by the likes of Alexander Rodchenko, Paul Outerbridge or Cartier-Bresson. But though these images move us and make us notice things in a new way — the way art with a pedigree does — they’ve been classified as orphans by the mainstream art world. Until now, that is.

Other Pictures the book has led to Other Pictures the exhibition, on view until Aug. 27 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In both, we see the democratic aspect of photography taking center stage, along with the hilarious, enigmatic, grotesque, pornographic or beautiful results of some(unidentified)body’s approach to seeing. Is this just an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters eventually producing a masterpiece? Not quite.

Sometimes the accidental or the unconscious or the arbitrary or even the willfully perverse takes over the photographer like a temporary psychosis of inspiration. And sometimes good old-fashioned desire is enough (like capturing for posterity what totally great legs your girlfriend has). Either way, what ends up on paper is evidence of a way of seeing that could only have developed in a fever-state enthusiasm for the possibilities of photography.

In Other Pictures, 142 unknown agents of desire, of ecstatic, flipped-out pointing and clicking, make us see what they once felt and knew. And decades later, in another century, these images reveal everyday life to us. When you think about it, that’s pretty revolutionary.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at gtysh@metrotimes.com.

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