The People Who Collect Strangers' Memories

In gathering old photographs of daily life, family scenes, and illness, hobbyists get an intimate view into past lives.

Amelia Walker's hands hover over her collection of snapshots.
Amelia Walker with her collection of snapshots (Roc Morin)

“I didn't know why I was collecting pictures of volcanoes,” Amelia Walker confided. The true meaning of her fixation would only emerge years later.

Like other snapshot collectors, the psychology student devotedly scours flea markets, estate sales, and the internet in search of her quarry. She sifts through the discarded memories of other people’s lives in order to find images that are personally significant.

“At the time, I thought it was purely aesthetic. Volcanoes are beautiful,” she continued. “It was just recently that I realized how precisely that theme corresponded to a major crisis in my life: destruction, danger, inevitability, tension built up over many years. I started collecting volcanoes just before the first signs of it appeared. It was like a dream; I was seeking out an image to reflect back a feeling I could not articulate.”

Before the volcano period, she had collected images of people with their faces turned away. After the volcanoes, it was people in water.

She remembered standing in the ocean herself back then, experiencing the sensation of the waves, created by the gravitational pull of a distant moon. “The photographs gave me that same feeling–a certain kind of loneliness, but also connection to a force greater than myself, to the kind of chaos that ultimately creates exquisite patterns.”

“I can't believe photography exists,” she exclaimed. “It seems so incredible to me that a moment can be captured—that I can show up 50 years later and pick up an image and have this emotional response. It feels like someone is whispering to me across the decades. Sometimes, it almost feels like I can whisper back.”

* * *

The origins of snapshot collecting are unclear, however, as a collector myself, judging by price increases of old photographs at flea markets and online, the phenomenon is growing rapidly. Once the domain of hobbyists, the practice has recently begun to enter the art world, with some starting to consider snapshots to be found objects in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp. That was the perspective taken by the National Gallery in Washington in 2007 when it exhibited the collection of Robert E. Jackson. More recently, in 2014, the Swann Gallery of New York conducted the first sale of found photographs by a major art dealer.

A photograph from the author’s collection
(Courtesy of Roc Morin)

One of the attendees of that auction was Dan Lenchner. I met the collector and catering-company owner sometime later in his sprawling Manhattan apartment. We sat at his dining room table studying a standard studio portrait—a group of 12 taken in Łódź, Poland circa 1935. Only, we knew—as the sitters never could have—that in 10 years, everyone in the photo would be dead. Everyone except the man in the back row, second from the right. In the picture, he already seems separate from them—he is the only one not looking into the lens. It is a portrait of a Jewish family. It is also, inversely, a portrait of the Holocaust—a documentation of what was lost.

The man in the back row is Dan Lenchner’s father. “One of the ironies,” the son noted, “is that my father didn’t get along with his family. Even before the war, he was not a happy man. He never found himself.”

The ancestral portrait was passed down as an heirloom, but to Lenchner, it is also a collectable—one of 15,000 other images that he has bought over the years. The 70-year-old has published several books of found photographs, displaying them in pairs intended to evoke specific connections between disparate subjects: a prisoner and a baby, kids with toy guns and a wounded soldier, a woman in a hijab, and a woman in a catcher’s mask.

Among these, as among all snapshots, there is a broader connection too. Walker describes it as a shared relationship to time. “Every person in a photo is older than when that photo was taken,” she elaborated. “I look at a photo and I know someone is probably dead and that one day I'll be dead too. There must be some secret of time held in these images. I can’t help thinking that if I just study them hard enough, I'll finally be able to understand it.”

Several years ago at the New York Hell’s Kitchen flea market, Noel Buscemi, a snapshot vendor who has since passed away himself, made a similar remark to me. “Pretty much everyone in these pictures is dead,” he commented, “along with everyone who ever cared about them.” He waved a hand over his wares, strewn haphazardly in boxes like mounds of autumn leaves. The snapshots had been torn out of context. Whatever they had once meant to their former owners had vanished.

“The photographs have lost their original meanings,” veteran collector Joel Rotenberg said. “Now they have room for the meanings we give them.”

Still, remnants of original meaning persevere, in a scribbled note on the back of the picture, perhaps—a name, a date, a place, or even a personal reflection. Maher Ahmad, an art director, owns four out of a set of 20 meticulously compiled family scrapbooks entitled The Life History and Various Doings of Francis Saunders Spon.

“They were created by his mother,” the 66-year-old explained. “She was a woman obsessed with recording her son’s life—a day-by-day account of what he did.”

We sat in Ahmad’s library in the Hollywood Hills as he carefully turned the pages.

“July 20th 1906, Francis celebrated his third birthday by having a little party. The following children being present: Harold Smith, Ramona Duryee, Margaret Duryee...”

“Christmas 1907. This is a list of all the gifts he got from Santa Claus: 1. Piano, 2. Drums, 3. Table…”

“Here is his Junior-Senior prom January 9th, 1920. Francis took Pauline Pharo to this dance, and then there’s the newspaper article about it, and here’s his dance card: One step Pauline, Fox trot Arline, Waltz Pauline…”

“It’s frustrating because I don’t know how it ends. I searched, but there is no information about him anywhere. Other than these scrapbooks, he left no trace.”

Through my own inquiries, I was able to find out a little more about Francis Saunders Spon.

On the night of March 19th, 1921, his overcoat was stolen.

According to census records, he became a salesman, though what he sold is not mentioned.

In 1925, he married a woman named Isabelle who won prizes for her gardening.

On March 2nd, 1951, he returned from a trip to Bermuda.

He died in November of 1981, childless, and seemingly without an obituary.

Scattered facts like these and the volumes that Ahmad owns are perhaps all that remains of one man’s life.

For Walker, that kind of impermanence is something she experiences in her own life as well. “To be honest, I feel like I die every day. Today I am me, and tomorrow I'll wake up as someone else. I was in so much grief a year ago, that I was unrecognizable. I looked at pictures of myself as a reminder of who I am—of who I have been on different days. Sometimes, it's so hard to remember what was meaningful. Seeing it visually really does help me stay consistent and integrated. It's incredibly reassuring.”

* * *

Back at the Hell’s Kitchen flea market, I sat at a booth with Rotenberg. I watched as the professional translator sifted images with the dexterity of a black jack dealer. “Snapshot collectors are like whales straining plankton out of seawater,” he mused.

As opposed to the calculating composition of an art photograph, Rotenberg values the sincerity of a snapshot. “A snapshot is something we feel we must trust: it lacks the extra layer of complication that intrudes itself when [something] is made to be put before the public.”

A photo of two women from the author’s collection
(Courtesy of Roc Morin)

His work has provided him with an intimate knowledge of the past. “In early snapshots,” he noticed, “groups of women often arrange themselves horizontally—in a ‘chorus line’—and men vertically—in a pyramid. Beach shots of women draped with kelp seem to end around 1930. Women these days rarely turn away from the camera to display their hair, as was popular until perhaps 1950.”

However, despite all of his experience combing through the endless stockpiles of “babies, birthdays, and beaches,” Rotenberg still cannot explain exactly what he seeks. He knows what it feels like when he finds it though—a jolt of surprise that “seems to enlarge me, just a little, in a very personal sense.”

For Walker, the experience is visceral. “When I see a picture I don't like, I actually have a slight gagging feeling in the back of my throat. When I see one I like, a feeling of relaxation washes over me. It’s like falling in love.”

Rotenberg brought each snapshot as close as he could to his eyes. He squinted through a magnifying glass–still, he could only get so close. The pictures, small and inert are, in his words, “like music that can’t be turned up.”

“What I look for most of all is an unsolvable problem,” he concluded. “The answer is lost in the past.”

That quality of absence is a common motif. “Every snapshot collector I’ve met seems to be missing something in their life, or trying to replace something that was lost,” the documentary filmmaker Lorca Shepperd said. She herself buys class pictures and images of kids at their first communion, because they remind her of her childhood.

There is another woman who hunts for smiling babies, and a man who seeks only photographers’ shadows. Daguerreotype dealer Erin Waters keeps an assortment of handsome Civil War soldiers for herself filed under the heading “Dead Men I’m in Love With.” Other specialties: celebrants throwing rice at weddings, people with their heads cut out, pictures of Hawaii.

The lawyer David Rheingold seems intent on recreating the world in miniature. His collection of 60,000 painstakingly catalogued images spans 2,280 precise categories. Under “Groups,” within the subsection “Groups with some affinity (note: overlap with Family)” can be found the sub-sub-sections of “like a party,” “with costumes,” “holding ancestor photos,” “photos with photos added,” “conga line,” and “something special going on.”

Back in Lenchner’s private museum, his family portrait rests on a table among other fragments—seemingly random snapshots of a nude couple posing awkwardly, a lighthouse, a train wreck, Che Guevara drinking a Coke, and a pile of corpses. All they have in common is that Lenchner chose them.

Alongside his carefully cataloged assemblage, there is also by default a collection in a negative sense, almost inconceivable in scope, made up of all the photographs that he did not choose.

“I used to be upset to think that somebody cherished these images once,” he remarked, “and I flip through, so cavalier, thinking, ‘Boring, boring, boring,’ when of course, to the original owners, they were anything but boring.”

Asked if he would have selected his own family portrait, had he not known the people in it, the collector hesitated. “Probably not,” he confessed.

Lenchner’s greatest fixation is intimate Nazi images: SS officers with their wives and children, soldiers of the Wehrmacht on holiday, gaggles of lanky teenagers flashing Heil Hitler salutes. Lenchner is so primed to looking for fascist symbology in his searches, that he admits to periodically seeing swastikas where there are none. For him, the photographs serve to demystify Nazism by demonstrating what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”

Lenchner picked up a snapshot from the table. There were four seemingly dead bodies in civilian clothing. Three lay crumpled at the base of a tree. The fourth, apparently a woman, lay on a table. In the background, a group of soldiers can be seen walking towards a locomotive. The collector described the scene as “a little massacre, with what I believe is a rape. This is surely a woman with her babushka. She's laid on this table with her legs splayed, and she's been made a little comfortable with some straw under her head. I think everybody's dead here: bodies, bodies, bodies. And, the Germans are done now. They're heading to what looks like a small train station. Their backs are all turned away. ‘We've done our work and now we're leaving.’"

(Note: The image below contains graphic content.)

(Courtesy of Dan Lenchner)

That is what Lenchner sees, and yet it is impossible to know for certain how much of that narrative is true. Other collectors have looked at the same photograph and seen Soviet soldiers, and a woman who died, unviolated, as her wounds were being tended.

* * *

Whereas Lenchner seeks a story, even to the point of projecting his own, for Rotenberg, stories are a distraction. If the sellers possess contextual information about the photographs, he prefers not to know it. Though none of the snapshots were created by him, grouped together, an aesthetic emerges that is distinctly that of the collector. Rotenberg’s universe is filled with ineptly-positioned bodies, shadows, blurs, distant figures, and cropped out faces.

Rotenberg regards his collection as a kind of photography-by-proxy. “The snapshot corpus is a gigantic source of pictures that I might have taken but didn’t,” he stated. “What I choose from that material has got to mean something. It simply must. I’m not a machine.”

In his role as collector and artist, Rotenberg replaces the original meaning of the snapshot with his own. “The people who took these pictures had a different purpose than ours,” he said. “We know why the pictures were taken for the most part, and we are not respecting that. We are warping them. We are deliberately misunderstanding them. I honestly think that if most of the people who took these pictures ever saw what we were doing with them they would be outraged.”

“How would you want your own family photographs to be handled after you die?” I asked. “Should they be treated as human remains? Should they be buried or cremated?”

“I wouldn’t want someone to do with them what we do,” he replied.

Apprehensive about the power of images, Rotenberg prefers not to appear in photographs himself. In the one picture he did allow me to take, he is holding a snapshot in front of his face. The image itself features another man refusing to be photographed—a man with his hand over his own face.

The power of images is something that Ahmad, the art director and snapshot collector, has also sensed, in his own way. Weeping into his hands, he recounted the death of his partner David from AIDS after a decade-long struggle. Ahmad had been there through it all, with his camera, documenting everything: a last party, a final walk outdoors, David on a gurney with tubes going in and out.

“When they came to take the body,” he continued, “I had my camera. I took pictures of him being put in the coroner’s van. And, in the funeral home, by myself, I took a death portrait of him. I never showed it to anyone. It felt important to document it, even if no one was ever going to look at it. He lived and he died—and this is what happened.”

Ahmad paused to rub away the tears, to harden his face, to breathe. “After that, I stopped taking photographs. Everything became meaningless. Somehow, maybe I thought that taking these pictures would save him. It didn’t. Whatever I thought that photographs did—it wasn’t true. Everything will cease to exist. In five billion years, the sun will explode and it all will be incinerated.”

* * *

My own introduction to photography began when I was three or four. I was abnormally averse to destruction: kids stepping on ants, piñatas smashed, Christmas trees discarded after the holidays. For months, I refused to eat anything without drawing it first to preserve it—then drawing it again after every bite, because it had become something new. My mother gave me a camera so I could preserve the beautiful ephemera of my life—and it helped. It helped, until I discovered that instead of the infinite film roll she claimed was inside, it was empty.

A decade later, I began to fill a similar void with the snapshots of others. Flea market vendors would ask what I was looking for, but all I could say was, “I’ll know it when I see it.” Intuitively, I felt as though I were assembling a trove of moments that needed to be saved, to the extent that I even merged the most treasured photographs from my own past into it. Shuffled together, my life dissolved undifferentiated into the lives of others.

Sitting across from Walker on the day of our interview, I offered to show her my snapshot collection. It seemed only fair to reciprocate. At the end of our talk, I handed her the box without further comment. She quickly formed her own impressions.

Another photo from the author’s collection
(Courtesy of Roc Morin)

“There are a lot of costumes or uniforms—a lot of artifice, whether it's in the staging of an opera with the false intimacy of actors, or with this bullfight, or these women play-wrestling. There is also a theme of false creatures: the papier-mâché dragon, the carousel horse, the zoo elephant, the mermaid sand sculpture. Even this mountain scene looks like part of a movie set.”

“I feel as though my palm is being read,” I quipped.

Walker continued her appraisal. “It's very clear that one person collected these,” she added, sweeping a hand over the table. “You're definitely here in some way.”

By the time she had finished, the collector had sorted my photographs into several piles. The stack closest to her was made up of the ones she liked best–the images she would have bought herself. Glancing through them, her aesthetic was unmistakable. She was there, suddenly, in that assortment. I was in it too. And yet, neither of us were there at all.