Rich Vogel is a musician. He employs the audio chips from 1980s Commodore-64 computers to create crunchy anthems for dance halls; sampling sounds from the deep past of electronic music to inform its future.
In 2004 he embarked on a project to do the same for digital photography then flooding the internet, though he didn’t know it at the time. Vogel was trawling peer-to-peer networks for mp3 files, when he stumbled upon folders containing thousands of personal photos.
Some were shared intentionally by users of the network, but most were the result of accidentally sharing their entire C:/ drive on the network. “A lot of the photos were boring, pictures of concerts people had attended,” he says. “But then there were others, like Thanksgiving dinner with their family, photos that showed something interesting or human, and made you feel like you’re connecting with these people and their lives.”
Intrigued, Vogel tried different ways of searching the networks, such as entering ‘*.jpg’ as a search term, or looking for folders called ‘Pictures’, and to expand the search offshore, foreign-language directory titles such as ‘Bilder’. Sometimes the search returned so many hits it crashed his machine.
From the millions of images he downloaded, just a few dozen from each search were shared on the website foundphotos.net. It became a growing collection of moments shared between friends and families, pictures imbued with trust, familiarity and tenderness.
The images have “a sense of humour,” says Vogel. “A certain spark. A certain life. Some were accidents of exposure—unintentional over- or under-exposed images, a ghosted image, an unintended reflection of someone in a window… I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but I knew immediately when I found it.”
The collection contrasts sharply with the taut smiles of most cheap stock imagery: A young girl embraces her grandmother and addresses the camera with a look so beguiling and fresh that there isn’t a photographer alive that could have captured it—except the family member or friend that was holding the camera that day. A boy with a bush knife composes a hardened demeanour for the benefit of the photographer, but you can see the smile in his eyes. Others are quirky; a bearded man lounging on an inflatable couch in an inflatable pool wearing a child’s inflatable swimming ring on his head with the air of a king. A hundred Star Wars storm troopers walking down a street. A supermarket trolley used as a drying rack for octopus. This is life, captured without pretense, artifice or self-consciousness, photography where every photographer knows their subject intimately.
“It’s hard not to get sucked into each person’s little universe,” says Vogel. “I can read so much about what sort of person they are, what they’re taking photos of, their family, the way they interact with the world. It really affected me.”
The collection is instructive for professionals: There are limits to our access into the lives of others, and this catalogue of found photographs serves as something of an index for the metrics of intimacy—proximity, trust, imperfection, candour, humour, sometimes alcohol, always honesty.
The trendbook of stock photography suggests that the values so obvious in this collection are also among the most valuable visual commodities in commercial photography. Experts highlight ‘immersive viewpoints’, experiential images, pictures with a sense of narrative, and the ‘glitch aesthetic’ as visual trends that are driving engagement in the 21st century. The images are more engaging, they suggest, because they appear more ‘real’.
The suggestion has professional photographers the world over trying to imitate low quality lenses with professional glassware, to capture the unique and spontaneous mood of everyday folk with high-key flash and inexperienced talent.
But the success of the pictures on Found Photos is not about technique, it’s about access. Relativity is the currency that makes these images succeed, and that’s hard to fabricate, fake or Photoshop.
But there’s another layer to this story. So as much as the pictures on Found Photos are a testament to the power of the democratic lens, the selection is also a tribute to the eye of one particular photo editor. The collection echoes Vogel’s sense of humour and his sensitivity to subtle human connections. He clearly found joy in pictures, which, for all of their imperfections, were a more accurate echo of life than anything produced commercially. It’s no coincidence that the project began during a difficult period in Vogel’s marriage. Maybe he was searching for more than just ‘*.jpg’—he was looking for human connection, intimacy, authenticity and honesty, as we all do, and found it in the pictures of other people in other places and circumstances.