Understanding Vernacular Photography: Collecting Found Photos

Barbara Basbanes Richter

Images courtesy of Stacy Waldman - House of Mirth Photos

We’ve all been there: perhaps it’s been during an intense cleaning session of grandma’s attic, or after a box or two fall from an already overstuffed closet shelf. There it is, a shoebox full of old photos. We pause from whatever task we’re doing and open the box to explore the contents within. Who are these people? What are they wearing? Why are so many out of focus? Well, congratulations, dear reader, because you’ve just been hit with a trove of vernacular photos, and they’re all the rage in the collecting world right now.

            “Vernacular photos are a great entry point for collecting because they’re inexpensive,” said Stacy Waldman, owner of House of Mirth Photos in Easthampton, MA. “Plus, they’re everywhere. You can find them in your attic, at a garage sale, under your bed—nearly everyone has a shoebox full of photos.”

            Ok, so what makes a “vernacular” photo? Though the definition may vary depending on who you talk to vernacular photos are generally taken by an anonymous shutterbug, and it’s unclear or unknown when, where, or with what type of camera the pictures were taken. “These are snapshots that could have been taken by anyone, anywhere, that may have had a specific purpose at one time, but are being rediscovered for their newfound aesthetic value,” explained Waldman. “Some of these pictures are well composed, and some are just terrible, and terrible ones are just as collectible as the good ones.” Babies sitting on a backyard porch, farmhands stopping for a drink, children caught playing tag in a field, travel snapshots, advertisement pictures, even mugshots—all are elements of this rich and panoramic genre.

            Getting into collecting vernacular photography is relatively painless, too. “It requires a little elbow grease, though,” said Waldman. “I offer photographs starting at $15 apiece and that go up in price from there, with some being quite expensive. I also have a bin full of photographs that start at one dollar, but the customer has to be willing to go through them and find the ones that capture their imagination.”

            That said, some material moves faster than others, and right now, collectors are gravitating towards white trimmed,  3 ½ by 3 ½ color photographs taken in the 1960s. Still, “each collector follows their own desires,” said Waldman. “And with vernacular photography, there really is something for everyone. One collector I work with only wants photos with eight people in them. Another hunts down pictures of potatoes. Personally, I collect “Dick” pictures—people, places, and things named Dick.” 

             Perhaps the best way to start a collection of vernacular photos is find your focus. Do you like black-and-white snaps from the turn of the 20th century? Or are you interested in capturing the hippy-trippy, feel-good vibes of the Woodstock era? Maybe you don’t like people in your photos at all, and prefer candids of cows and other beasts. Blurred and unexpected perspectives provide their own special allure. Put together a suite of these shots, either framed or tacked on a wall with a nail, and you’ve got yourself an impressive little collection that, when taken together, frames its own narrative. 

You'll see a gallery of vernacular photography for sale at the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair on September 8-9.