Consider the Lost Glove

How photographs of trash objects become postcards from a surrealistic realm

“You collect lost loves?”

It happens a lot. Lost loves.

The near homophone is not all that mismatched. I have seen a lost glove looking like that, lovelorn. He was sitting on the tines of a metal fence, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, all bent over, the previous night of debauchery resting heavy on his shoulders. How it had once felt good, right — why doesn’t she love me for me. A mitten. Was it that fingertip type she told me not to worry about. You know the story.

Then there was an elegant, fur-lined old thing touched by the glassy light of a remembered Brighton Beach — parasols and social diction; “my word” — all done up for the one who didn’t come back, who abandoned her and took with him an irreplaceable sense of belonging. So she stays on the bench looking like that, love-worn. But the lost glove is never so placeless as she feels, and as twilight sets so does her memory of solitude’s many comforts. Lost — one man’s past participle is not her adjective, she decides. Or, who’s to say.

Ubiquitous as they are, once one makes a habit of cataloging lost gloves in their natural habitat, even the most peculiar subspecies reveal themselves

I collect single, lost gloves. Photos of them — taken by me, and exceedingly by friends and strangers. Lost gloves have been found to grow proportionally with the local human population, in all climates — it is a symbiotic relationship, like with pigeons, stray cats, or certain viruses. Ubiquitous as they are, once one makes a habit of cataloging lost gloves in their natural habitat, one’s eye becomes keener, and even the most peculiar, unknown subspecies reveal themselves.

My kaleidoscope of glove photographs numbers over 300: Consider the molting lobster mit of Portland, Maine; the riding leather-lined admiral of Park Slope, Brooklyn; the salt-crusted, weather-worn workman’s all-leather; the long-limbed blue fleece of Oakland, California, (pictured: just the fingers). The blue Morpho and the ruby Postman share a distant relative. I can point to a clear delineation between the industrial, “working” group — this medium-build Dun; the clear latex that many eschew (like a moth to the butterfly) as unworthy of titular “glove” appointment at all — and the “toy” varieties, typically fashioned from the more delicate or temperamental materials, like this engine red Kid or this two-toned Faux Fox starlet. The latter group is attracted to car doors and gutters, whereas the working group is seen absolutely everywhere.

I’m less interested in the imagined once-upon-a-time life of a glove than this implies. I am not a writer of fiction, and I’ve never cared to speculate where the lone man at the bar is going, has been; what designed his taste or choice of button-down. Whatever I imagine is less interesting or perverse than the truth. I prefer to catalogue: What I’m interested in is the way gloves are like birds, having migratory paths, genus and family; how they carry identifying marks like a butterfly’s wing. I am interested in the gloves’ situational patterns, their socioeconomic indicators bright as labels. But most of all, I marvel that you, now, continue to send them to me, snapshots of the lost gloves of your life, whether you and I share this predilection for trash objects because we’ve made a “platform” for it; whether it was me who gave you permission to notice a thing you always see, and to recast these mundane unremarkable things as “indexical,” giving them a history or taking it away, making and sharing records of them in pictures, building a cloud monument to the forgotten and to forgetting.

I posted the first glove photo 109 weeks ago, which is the way the internet remembers 763 days, or about 25 months. I’m not a person who counts the click-to-validation ratio of social media, mostly because I’ve never been good at curation: the deli cups, the light on walls, but also the way my friend looked yesterday; a sunset, a snaggletooth dog; the frozen hillside; a glove. I lose patience playing a perilous and tortured verisimilitude of life like a high-stakes board game. If I let myself become invested in the arbitrary dictums of platforms and posting, I get fired up and ruthless and I consider that energy lost. But the operative of any collection is its place, and I needed one, a place to frame and admire, a place with requisite reverent quiet but also, people.

My first glove was near a stoop in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Funny, I thought. Maybe I thought nothing. Because I don’t remember if I’d seen just the one or three by the time I decided to snapshot the one and keep track. The street hands, fallen soldiers; mid-gesture, a trailing sentence or a still burning cigarette in the ashtray of a room recently vacated.

You’ve seen them: on the street, the guardrail of the staircase leading to your laundry room or basement. There’s almost always one in the gutter, outside the nightclubs, the daycares. The crosswalks. Why crosswalks? Always by a car door. What happened. It’s not just an urban problem or a winter problem. It’s an always everywhere problem: global.

At first the gloves appeared with semi-irregularity, surprising beacons on a city walk, easily skewed to omen: “There’s something more to this [sidewalk / corner bodega coffee shop / commute].” On lunch breaks, wearing headphones, daydreaming myself into a world beyond the bored-to-death routine of get up, eat, walk 15 minutes to the subway, subway for 45 minutes, look at that guy’s shoes; walk 20 minutes from subway to wait for an elevator; morning, Hank and Lisa and Lucy; read emails, read emails, read the internet; break. A glove on the bench. The mathematical me known by my career contemporaries shielded my racing noticer brain, giving it the privacy it needed to grow and propagate. Nightshades witness to the moon. The gloves became like Cheshire Cats, portals to a parallel world of non sequiturs.

That first glove I captured had been left on the railing in the lobby of my apartment building. Animated, pointing, it reminded me of André Breton’s semi-autobiographical Surrealist text, Nadja, written in 1928, in which the narrator, “André,” becomes obsessed with the titular character, a “mad” woman who appears and disappears from the Paris that André wanders, and who in a sort of personified fort/da-ness, allows him to see a new version of reality, the surreal.

You’ve seen them: The street hands, mid-gesture, like a trailing sentence or a still burning cigarette in the ashtray of a room recently vacated

The glove is very important to this story. Its most significant appearance is at the Surrealist Headquarters when a woman André knows is asked to leave one of her own lovely sky-blue gloves behind. André, overhearing this, spins out into manifesto mode, “I don’t know what there can have been, at that moment, so terribly, so marvelously decisive for me in the thought of that glove leaving that hand forever.” The woman then offers to return with a bronze cast of a glove from her home instead, which André describes, having “subsequently seen” it there: “Also a woman’s glove, the wrist folded over, the fingers flat — a glove I can never resist picking up, always astonished at its weight and interested, apparently, only in calculating its precise weight against what the other glove would not have weighed at all.”

The Surrealist glove, writes Johanna Malt in Obscure Objects of Desire: Surrealism, Fetishism, and Politics, is created by its relation to its environment, both shaping the space and filling it. The author’s real-life bronze glove, and the above scene, came by way of Lise Deharme, a French poet and salon host who became subsequently known as “Lady of the Glove.” The glove was an important artifact for Surrealists, almost akin to a mascot, an industrial article representing both a physical presence and an absence, emptiness filled by and filling the world in the form of a hand.

The text of Nadja is punctuated by 44 photographs and illustrations that include several locations visited by André throughout the book. They are an assembly of commercially available or uncited works, some by Jacques-André Boiffard, Man Ray, and Henri Manuel. The photos and illustrations in the book are often unexplained, unrelated to the text, or generally unimpressive. “Part of the force of these images,” Malt writes, “comes from their ability to evoke a lost human presence.” The stark documentation offered by photos “interrupts” the text, anchoring the unreal in the story to these supposed signals of the real, fact-based records, but which, in context, don’t seem to describe the way the real feels. In this way, Surrealists uniquely privileged photographs in uncovering subconscious associations, and recreating the effect of a dreamlike, waking life. Photographs impose presence — of its place or subject but also of itself as an autonomous object or artifact, while the Surrealist object also imposes its absence. “Just as Breton himself is defined by his social surroundings,” writes Malt, “the present or absent object in these images is defined by the space it occupies, or fails to occupy …  In the positive/negative image, the idea of presence is mediated through the relation of the object to its surroundings. The mark it leaves on them may be the sole, encoded memory of its presence.”

After the literary realism of the 19th century, the use of photography by Surrealists, preceding or overlapping with the Dadaists, helped unravel the “myth” of reality as static and call attention to perception as interpretation. Using text-image assemblage and tricks of context (like Jacques André Boiffard’s flies on flypaper) and of the darkroom (like Man Ray’s woman as a violin), Surrealists could distort photography’s “mechanical trace” of the extant and “convulse reality from within,” as described by Rosalind Krauss in “Photography in the Service of Surrealism.” Surrealists, she wrote, divorced photography from its special status as an “index” of real subjects, thus pushing photography into the realm of language and signification; where it has stayed, through image manipulation and displacement — say, of an image you’ve snapped yourself, of yourself, and run through FaceApp, or the “unretouched” surreality of the absence felt among the destroyed pews of a bombed church on the New York Times front page — catapulting photographs into the uncanny surreal. A “surrealist fact,” wrote Jodi Hauptman and Stephanie O’Rourke, paraphrasing Paul Eluard, Roger Vitrac, and Boiffard, “calls for the transformation of something  —  an object, an idea, a phenomenon  —  that is understood to be true so that a new meaning results. In so doing, the very categories of fact, truth, and meaning are called into question.

Surrealists could distort photography’s “mechanical trace” of the extant and “convulse reality from within.” Photographs impose presence, while the Surrealist object also imposes its absence

The “fact” of the lost glove photographed is that it has come alive, personified by the framing. Whereas photography is known as an “indexical medium,” meaning that it is uniquely able to reproduce the real world, the interaction of text and pictures in Nadja, like the glove itself, produced what Anneleen Masschelein later called a kind of “negative indexicality,” where the indexical object is absent — like the direction implied by a pointed finger, or the “here” that means where or when it isn’t — leaving a self-referencing shell. A photograph alluding to an incident, an implied story of loss; a photograph of the glove filled with your unaccounted-for associations, the bronze glove returned to our table. Upon review, the negatively indexical photograph shows a memory of no one that never happened, the signifier without its correlate signified, a stop sign in the ocean. It’s the double absence, the palimpsest of no one’s hand on an internet estate built by everyone.

In a haze of inspiration and inside-jokiness I called my new series of single lost gloves “indexicality,” and filled it with index fingers pointing, somewhere, by no visible will. What it became was a place for the lost things that would remain lost because I wasn’t picking them up; an in-memoriam to trash objects, undone from intended function, noticed and collected; transforming them into smoking guns, clues in a mystery that can be traced but not uncovered.

Even though I posted that first glove 109 weeks ago, it has only been 52 since I posted the second and started collecting in earnest. Suddenly there were gloves everywhere. Beautifully spread-eagle on a hot sidewalk. Dramatically supplicating, lewdly gesticulating, littering parks and inflated in garbage cans and skewered like the Witch of the West under dumpsters. By week seven I received my first unsolicited glove submission. A text from a friend, with the photo of a glove flattened like a pancake. “Guest glove,” I called this new development, I posted it with a note about location and author.

From California and Maine they came. Then France and Brazil and Spain and Israel. Gloves in snow, gloves on the beach, on bleachers and in cars. Lost gloves in the moving museum in the air. By week 39 I got choosy. No more latex gloves, the rubber coated contractor grade needed a placement flair. Then I received a real glove in the mail, found by my grandmother at the community thrift store and food bank where she volunteers. (She’d heard I was collecting lost gloves.) And then at the company holiday party, the founder drew my name in our white-elephant exchange and after asking coworkers what I might like, photographed his batting glove on the pavement, wrote #indexicality and signed it — Derek Jeter.

Why is the lost glove so intriguing? The story of its accidental abandonment can’t be that interesting. Like socks in the dryer, the other glove just disappears. One day there’s a pair and the next there’s one. They were probably tucked in a pocket when she reached for a cigarette while walking and out it came making the silent koosh of snow on snow, no reason to turn around or look back, she won’t remember where she was when she lost it, no point retracing steps.

Five gloves will suddenly turn up on my screen, sent as an estimation of how a friend would have me remember the thing I wasn’t there to see; cloth fingers pointing to me

A few years ago, the New York Daily News reported that “lost items” cost Americans about $5,591 on average over the course a lifetime, and that “one in five loses or misplaces personal belongings every week.” (Whether this means that out of every five Americans, one of them will lose some kind of belonging every week, or if each week one fifth of the population experiences a loss is not totally clear. However, half of those polled reported “frustration”.) The top items most frequently misplaced: car keys; house keys; winter accessories. I’m not the only one who has culled glove sightings. A few year’s back someone collected lost mittens. Tom Hanks keeps quite a few. Various fetishists have been sent my way. In winter of 2003, a cognitive scientist specializing in animal behavior, Alexandra Horowitz, was found attempting to reunite lost winter gloves with their mates, but moreso keeping them in plastic bags indefinitely. “It’s an overweening concern for lost objects,” Horowitz told Nick Paumgarten in an interview for the New Yorker, “The melancholy of a lost glove sitting in the middle of a sidewalk struck me as minorly tragic, for the glove and for its owner.” The statistical results of her collection yielded an hypothesis:

It’s what I call active loss. The glove isn’t just falling away; the owner has removed it to do something with the dominant hand: dial a phone, dig for change, shake someone’s hand. In the cognitive distraction of paying or meeting someone, the glove gets lost. Given that for most people the dominant hand is the right, they’re more apt to lose the right glove.

The design of a functional object like a glove is arguably created to be forgotten. “Good design renders everyday objects invisible,” as the Independent put it in 2011, the year Apple released Siri, in a review of a retrospective at the Science Museum in London, called Hidden Heroes. By virtue of ergonomic functionality (like the glove) or design (like the bicycle frame’s triangle) or simplicity (like the paper clip), everyday objects integrated into our daily lives become lost to us. It’s not until we come upon them out of context that we see them, the displacement forces us to reconsider the object’s purpose, and then we, too become rearranged somehow, different, in relation. The lost glove is more visible than the pair. As Vladimir Nabokov wrote it, “the lost glove is happy.”

The glove — an object but also a garment; a noun, a verb, and an adjective — has a long and murky story that begins with B-roll literary appearances. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica the word, coming from the Gothic lofa for the palm of the hand, first appeared in Homer’s Odyssey, when Laërtes is “described as wearing gloves while walking in his garden.” And then the item, a constant companion, is suddenly everywhere: “Herodotus tells how Leotychnides filled a glove with the money he received as a bribe.” On the ascent up Vesuvius, the secretary to Pliny the younger’s uncle wore gloves “so that he might not be impeded in his work by the cold,” and “Varro remarks that olives gathered with bare fingers are better than those gathered with gloves.” Finally, the glove is entombed: “found on the hands of King John when his tomb was opened in 1774.”

To quote the internet’s encyclopedia, its own epic, a glove’s purpose is a poetic one, to protect the working hands: “to provide a guard for what a bare hand should not touch.” The wearers of gloves, we’ve told the source that tells us, are: the health care professionals avoiding contamination; cigarette smokers and church organists in their fashionably fingerless models; officers at crime scenes; criminals in general. “Gloves themselves can leave prints that are just as unique as human fingerprints.” Even wearing a glove can be implicating, an inchoate offense. Many of us, however, remember the obverse effect of that single right-hand Aris Isotoner, leather light, style number 70263.

Like the recounted love story in Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, a hurt is erased by documentation and its retelling. “One of the things writing does is wipe things out. Replace them.” Similarly, the photograph disappears its object. We’ve been told many times a photograph doesn’t enhance our memory of the subject, but rather the memory of using the capturing device. A study in Psychological Science, quickly picked up by the Atlantic, stated that “despite the added time or attention required to angle the camera and adjust the lens so as to capture the best shot of the object in its entirety, the act of photographing the object appears to enable people to dismiss the object from memory, thereby relying on the external device of the camera to ‘remember’ for them.” Of course, later reviewing photos, of which many of us have more than days of our lives, reaffirms the photographed information, making it stick in our memory, or showing us it doesn’t, like class notes do. But has the act of looking at a photograph ever been to remember “an object in its entirety,” if that were possible? Is it an empty glove on the pavement pointing to nothing that we remember, or some new thing entirely?

I have been collecting them for so long now that the gloves feel like an extension of my very personal experience of a city. Hello, it’s Glove. I snap its picture almost without thinking. Sometimes days later I consider its color and shape and place or sender. I frame it, crop to make it a little story about placement and direction. I add it to the digital wall. Every so often I return to marvel at the way they’ve come together; the semiotics of single lost gloves; the disambiguation of gloves together again, but separate, in their digital photo cells. And anyway, they are pretty.

The real thrill in glove collecting now is the way they appear out of the ether, from above street level. And when I’m not looking, five gloves will suddenly turn up on my screen, photographs — the camera pointed, object captured creating an uncanny fact — sent by someone I haven’t talked to in a very long time, from someone I didn’t know paid attention to my internet life; taken as an estimation of how they would have me remember the thing I wasn’t there to see. Sometimes it seems, in cases like these, as though the cloth fingers point to me. It’s a personalized “thinking of you” that means something to me and you in the act of knowing me. A universal treasure hunt, the gloves are a piece of a private world made public. “Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I haunt,” reads the first line of Breton’s Nadja: “Surrealism will glove your hand, burying therein the profound M with which the word Memory begins.”

Genevieve Walker is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Previously she managed editorial operations at the Players’ Tribune, and before that, was the lead web producer at GQ magazine. You can find her gloves here.