It’s hard to resist old photos — especially the curious, the mysterious or the familiar (Grandma as a shy young bride). So the array of delightful artistic responses to old photographs at The Gallery at Tacoma Community College is totally understandable, and equally irresistible. “Found Photographs” not only gives a nice sweep of media and regional artists, it shows what stories lie hidden inside that faded sepia scene, if you’re creative enough.
The trend of vernacular photographs as art (and cultural memoir) has been percolating around the country in recent years: shows like “The Art of the American Snapshot” at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 2007 to David Winter’s collection at ZieherSmith in New York in 2013, all the way to Ransom Riggs’ successful novel “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” with a film coming.
Inspired by this trend, TCC curator Jennifer Olson-Rudenko sent out a call for responses to hard-copy vernacular photographs, which artists found everywhere from garbage dumps to antique shops. The result, “Found Photographs,” ranges over a wide variety of media and voice, from respectful to humorous to controversial.
Found photographs lend themselves to found-object and mixed-media work, and there’s a lot of this, from collage to sculpture. Becky Frehse fits vintage photos into vintage objects like a sardine tin or a mirrored coin purse, the frame itself a comment on the lives in the photo.
Bill Colby captures the essence of his photo’s time frame with news print, ripped paper and paint; Melissa Koch removes the photo altogether, allowing the viewer to substitute with their own imagination.
Sharon Styer’s photo-collages create entire fictional, surreal landscapes for her photos, like a pool full of swimmers oblivious to the floating embroidery flowers above them, or Tacoma’s Murray Morgan Bridge invaded by bizarre air-walking men in suits and space bubbles.
There are memory shrines made from found objects and gilded macaroni (a clever reference to cookbook photos), and Marilyn Mahoney’s delightful bronze of two smugly satisfied ladies around 1900, finally allowed to drive and perched in a rickety old open-top car — behind them, riding high, is their own photograph, in one of many self-referential touches in the show.
There’s abstract and figurative painting, graphic design, screenprints (Duane Cox lovingly recreates the red-gridded exterior of a 1950s milk factory). Patsy Surh O’Connell paints a lovely watercolor tribute to her parents’ marriage, with soft sepia renditions of traditional formal Korean portraits ranged around a pair of bemused Asian theater masks.
Denise MacDonald brings life to a Chinese father and child in 1930s San Francisco with colored pencil and large scale; and there’s even a film script by Anthony Culanag, telling the adventures of a trio of goofy plane passengers and a suspicious trash can. Extracted from an innocent sepia snapshot, it reads like performance art.
Despite being such a mixed and busy show, “Found Photographs” has a calm air, of memory and reflection and imagination, of alternative endings and “what ifs.” You can even contribute your own photo (copies only) on a pin-up mural in the front gallery.
Vernacular photographs, as Olson-Rudenko puts it, are precisely so engaging because they’re not high art — they’re a snapshot of a culture and a past that belongs to all of us. “Found Photographs” gives a Northwest take on that past, cut up and reassembled by art to create a whole new layer of reality.