Found photography retrieved from File 1920, a climber wearing headscarf and googles, photographed against a montain landscape. Approximate date: mid-1920’

Fortepan: File 1920, a climber wearing headscarf and googles, photographed against a montain landscape. Approximate date: mid-1920’. Original file. (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Fortepan is a massive, fully browsable online collection of over 17,500 (and continuously growing) found amateur or vernacular photos covering a century of production. The website, founded in 2009, is Hungarian but it provides English translation as well.

So who is this climber in the black-and-white photo depicted above? Where are those mountains? As it is often the case with found photography, there’s simply no way to know:

There is very little to be known about the photos here: most of the time the author, the people in the picture and even the place is unknown. On the back of some of the paper photos you will find some information like “in a historical football match, the third grade won against the fourth, scored Lindner, Imreh and Budai”, or some personal notes, a date maybe. As for the negatives, there is practically no information at all on them. As a consequence, the collection is not searchable, there are no tags, names or places (…) (Fortepan: read more)

All photos from the Fortepan collection can be used without restriction for whatever purpose provided that Fortepan is adequately credited (as per the Creative Common license). Fortepan is also on Facebook and Twitter. It also has a blog as well as a discussion forum (both are mostly in Hungarian).

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The found photography genre has gain some traction with the introduction of Internet which allows anyone to easily share his or her collection. Recently, it has also gained the consideration of scholars who now see in this particular genre a new window on the history of everyday life (courses on vernacular photography are offered in various universities, essays are produced, etc.).

The first time I was introduced to the found photography genre was through a project by Nicholas Osborn titled “Square America”. It used to have its own website and even published a gorgeous book at some point (I bought my copy directly from their website at the end of 2009): Who We Were: A Snapshot History of America by Nicholas Osborn, Richard Cahan and Michael William (Cityfiles Press, 2008; still available on Amazon). For some reason, the site was closed in spring of 2011 and remains close up to this day.. [Update August 25th, 2016] – The site is back online at Square America also maintains activities on Facebook and Tumblr.

In his book Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present (Amazon, Google Books), Professor Douglas Nickel (profile, CV) offers his thoughts on the potential and appeal of “snapshots”:

When the snapshot becomes ‘anonymous’―when the family history ends and the album surfaces at a flea market, photographic fair, or historical society―and the image is severed from its original, private function, it also becomes open, available to a range of readings wider than those associated with its conception.[…]

The snapshot, like other photographs, suffers an excess of potential meaning, but when removed from conditions that normally limit its polysemous nature, it may offer itself to the pleasure or our active, creative imagination. Like haiku, it will ask us to complete it.” (Snapshot, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998, p. 13)

Finally, here are some additional relevant resources:

  • In the Vernacular: Photography of the Everyday by Stacey McCarroll Cutshaw and Ross Barrett (Boston University Art Gallery, 2008; Amazon):

    The publication includes 75 full-colour reproductions organized thematically, as well as an introductory essay by Ross Barrett and Stacey McCarroll Cutshaw, plus essays on the vernacular and the Kingston Collection by Bernard L.Herman and Daile Kaplan. The book also includes one of the first comprehensive bibliographies on the subject of vernacular photography.

    In their preface, the authors explain the choice of the word “vernacular”:

    Despite the possibility of misinterpretation, we purposefully chose the term vernacular for our project to generate multiple associations. Broadly speaking, “vernacular” defines that which is domestic or indigenous. In popular usage it refers to the common or everyday and can further identify the personal or private. Vernacular photography, therefore, represents the kind of photographic production that permeates daily existence.” (p. 8)

  • Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905–1930 by Luc Sante (Verse Chorus Press, 2009; Amazon)

    Real-photo postcards were typically produced in small, often isolated towns whose citizens felt an urgent need to communicate with distant friends. The cards document everything about their time and place, from intimate matters to events that qualified as news. They depict people from every station of life engaged in the panorama of human activities — eating, sleeping, labor, worship, animal husbandry, amateur theatrics, barn raising, spirit rapping, dissolution, riot, disaster, death.[…] Sante wants us to see the images not simply as depictions of a vanished way of life, but as a crucial stage in the evolution of photography, possessing a blunt, head-on style that inherits something of the Civil War photographers’ plain aesthetic yet also anticipates the work of Walker Evans and other great documentary artists of the 1930s.

  • Other People’s Pictures (2004) is a documentary by Lorca Shepperd and Cabot Philbrick about collectors of vintage snapshots (IMDb, official website). Its official website provides a good list of links to found photo galleries as well as a bibliography of published books of snapshot / verncular photos.

  • Can only physical photos be found? If there such a thing as found digital photography? Apparently there is (kind of: the discussion is still open). The site archives and displays digital photos found on filesharing networks. The unidentified photos are usually find inside folders which are publicly shared on such networks. The New York Times has more information about this:

    Several people whose photos were used have protested, prompting Mr. Vogel [who runs the website] to remove their images. What surprised him, though, is how few have complained, given the ease of monitoring what others download from your shared folder, he said.

    “I’ve struggled with the larger moral issues, but what keeps me motivated is how great these photos are ― how much life and spontaneity is in them,” Mr. Vogel said. “I reject the idea that I’m a snoop.” (“Private Pictures for All” by Pamela LiCalzi O’Connell, July 29, 2004).


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