Found Images

On the nostalgia for image scarcity

Full-text audio version of this essay.

I like found objects. They imply that things can still be lost. They don’t feel serendipitous so much as glitches in a life that feels increasingly preformatted and algorithmic to me as I proceed through my usual, pandemic-circumscribed routines, the sum of my consumer behavior reflected back at me in ways I can’t begin to fully account for on all the screens I rely on. Even the anomalies come to seem calculated, a requisite amount of noise to intensify the impact of the signal. A found object can cut through all that. It’s useful only in that it is gratuitous.

Back when I would buy used books, I would occasionally discover that a previous owner had left some ephemera inserted between the pages: scraps of paper with addresses or doctor’s appointments written on them, bank deposit receipts, unpeeled name-tag stickers, a hole-punched bookmark that would entitle me to a discount at a Pennsylvania paperback trader, if it still existed. I once found an airline ticket for an America West flight to Reno in a copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine; I remember that far more vividly than I do the novel.

All these decontextualized objects had implicit stories to tell, but found photos were usually the most evocative, a license to freely imagine whatever I wanted about the unexpected tableau presented before me while retaining a sense that it remained “real.” So when I saw a Metafilter link to a photo archive hosted on a barebones WordPress blog called “Internet K-hole,” described as “anonymous snapshots and Polaroids from the 1970s through the 1990s presented at random without description or context that go on for ever and ever and ever,” I was lured in.

In these images, you can see how everyday life was saturated with analog media, making the relative absence of screens palpable

It’s self-negating to have an archive of found images — you’ve collected something whose essence is to seem to thwart collection — but the pretense invited the necessary voyeurism. The site has been around since at least 2011, when Metafilter first mentioned it, and maybe it had been around for years before then, but it seemed deliberately designed to make it hard to tell. It’s not clear where the images came from, if more are being added, or if anyone who’s on it knows about it.

Several layers of nostalgia are at play with these images: not just for the 1980s style on display — the gelled hair, the jean jackets, the oversize T-shirts — but for a time before the internet and phones, before everyone could carry a camera and instantly distribute the images. Sometimes this technological lack manifests directly in the images’ content, when someone is talking on a corded phone or listening to a boombox or sitting in a bedroom whose walls are covered with pictures cut out of magazines. You can see how everyday life was saturated with analog media, which makes the relative absence of screens palpable.

But pre-digitality also comes across through a nostalgia for the specific limitations of print photography, which now read as stylistic choices, particularly since they have become filter options for us in contemporary camera apps. In the old photos, the fading colors, the flashbulb glare, the imperfect focus, the chemical blotches and anomalies from the developing process can seem at once both accidental and deliberate, accomplishing the impossible feat of being purposefully incidental. The images are often blurry, haphazardly framed or spontaneously staged, sometimes seeming ephemeral, sometimes memorial, but always carrying a sense of fragile materiality.

The outdated blog-style format of this particular image archive reinforces this ambience; it feels nostalgic in its own right, analog compared with social media platforms. It enforces a different, somewhat lost relationship to images, where you can’t like or comment on them and you can’t find out more about who took them or who is in them by clicking on links. You can’t recontextualize these people’s photos in a grid of the other images they’ve made, looking for a clearer sense of what they are about. You can’t situate them within a presumption of wider surveillance. You are obliged to take them as they are, discrete and detached, invested with that lostness that has begun to feel unfamiliar.

The images are often blurry, haphazardly framed or spontaneously staged, always carrying a sense of fragile materiality

Looking at images like these — a kid sleeping in the back of a Ford Escort; a woman in a bathing suit sitting on a lawn chair in the driveway smoking a cigarette, a guy with a mullet in an apartment complex living room crouched beside a tower of Carling Black Label cans — I’m tempted to romanticize that mystery as a kind of grace that enchants the people depicted, who don’t know yet that they are living in the before. None of the images are selfies, which feels strange in itself. The subjects usually know that they are being watched, obviously by the person taking the picture, but they can’t imagine, even in theory, that it could be everyone watching. They can’t even frame that as an aspiration, which, to me looking back on them now, seems to animate their behavior with a guileless innocence, an indifference, an aura they’re unaware of, an absence of self-consciousness that I could trace in their faces, though I am certainly projecting it. I am partly seeing my own experience of detachment there, a feeling of being offline while online, in that I can’t respond directly to them, that the images are windows that won’t open.

“Photographs increasingly function not as surfaces to be looked at and decoded but rather as digital gestures to be transmitted via email and social media,” Joanna Zylinska writes in AI Art, “with a view to signaling affection, remembrance, call for attention or loneliness.” Against that background, the Internet K-hole images signify the opposite of that. They were not made to be transmitted in the way that they have been circulated to me. Whatever emotional gesture the photos were meant to express didn’t have a network in mind; if anything they were likely intended to ameliorate gaps in connectivity, not exploit the presumption or burden of it.

An illusion arises that in these snapshots people are somehow more present, more themselves, as though the camera were capturing something more elemental about them because they had less wherewithal to stage the image or manipulate it after the fact. It is as though who they were in general was more fixed and objective, less fluid and discursive. Though they are anonymous to me, they register more concretely as specific people, unpatterned by the grammar of gestures and looks that posting images to networks seems to impose. Their failure to more fluently pose for the camera becomes an alibi seeming to exonerate them from having ever posed in any other aspect of their lives, as if the clothes they wear and the way they tease their hair simply expressed who and how they had to be at the time. The images seem to capture their awareness (which they wouldn’t actually have had) that not every image of them will be taken to define them or will be seen as expressing something they were trying to say. The photos appear not as assertions of reality but reality as it was.

This is all tantamount to a nostalgia for denotation, for a time when images were less rhetorical, less overtly intentional, and could pass more readily as documentation. You couldn’t decontextualize images at will and deploy them conversationally in a text or as a meme. You couldn’t edit them to sharpen their meaning. Photos used to suppress the subjectivity of the photographer; the photograph would so often betray your intention. Some photographers arrogantly leveraged this condition to present themselves as neutral observers, roving dispassionate eyes who therefore couldn’t be accused of trespassing on the experience of the people they photographed with or without their consent. Every image was essentially a found image to them, a piece of reality they happened to stumble on, but stealing those moments was a kind of assertion too. Now I get to enjoy being a thief, in the way Internet K-hole serves me the serial violation of the privacy of countless “random” individuals who almost certainly did not consent to being so visible, who are caught unaware so that I can experience some vicarious authenticity.

The subjects in these images usually know they’re being watched, but they can’t imagine, even in theory, that it could be everyone watching

A photographer once could make an occurrence into an occasion by recording it. Accordingly, one can be nostalgic for the way film cameras could sanctify mundane experience, rather than photography making experience seem mundane. Cameras are ubiquitous now; they can no longer be added deliberately to a situation. Nearly every experience is understood to be captured somehow by somebody. The map covers the territory dozens of times over. The machine processing of images compounds this feeling: Even if an image of something doesn’t actually exist, it seems likely that an AI could probably synthesize one from the billions of images it could be trained on. In describing one of the more dismal futures for AI art, Zylinska evokes the “outpouring of seemingly different outcomes whose structure has been predicted by the algorithmic logic that underpins them, even if not yet visualized or conceptualized by the carbon-based human.” All the pictures of all the people on all the beaches already exist.

The K-hole images might be part of the ur-material for those algorithms, but looking at them, they feel as though they couldn’t have been invented by machines. Even when the moments the photos depict are easily classifiable — pre-gaming for a concert, heading to a school dance, showing off pets or holiday gifts or Camaros — they seem to have a retroactive singularity to them, untouched by the automation and refinement of our generic expectations for nearly every imaginable situation, by the affordances and algorithms and interfaces that guide our reactions on social media platforms.

“I have the impression, when I look back on it, that my childhood took place in an era of the scarcity of images,” Maël Renouard writes in Fragments of an Infinite Memory. “Such a characterization would have seemed odd or even inconceivable at the time, for we already believed ourselves to be overwhelmed by a quantity of images never seen since the beginning of the world. And yet how rare they were in comparison to the overabundance we now have at our fingertips.” I’m old enough to share that feeling, to wax nostalgic as he does about once having had to wait for images, “wait for the films that were shown once on television and shown again only many years later; wait for the magazines that, once a month, brought a cargo of images that seems meager indeed, now that we can find on the internet, for every object and every desire, about as many images as we could wish.” He describes images as “a currency now considerably devalued through overinflation.”

It would be absurd to dream of a cleansing iconoclasm as a means to restore images to their proper value, if such a thing could even be ascertained. The abundance of images should mean that they don’t need to function within a conventional economy. (NFTs to the rescue!) The sense that there are too many images reflects a different kind of lost scarcity having to do with agency over image making. When the means of image production were more laborious, taking a photo conserved and focused the photographer’s experience of agency, made it more significant, more impactful, like a kind of magic. Images carried that sense that we can invest significance into things by fiat, make lost things found again, and, through neglect, render the lost moments even more lost, holes we can perceive but can’t fill. A crystallization would occur around the images that happened to survive, accidentally exemplary in the absence of other kinds of evidence.

All of that has been displaced by the ability to send things to the network. No longer is it magic to represent and preserve, but to circulate, to influence and tally up the proof of it. Photos that document “reality” as it was are necessarily trapped in a drawer somewhere or in an album buried in an attic. Photos that document intentionality are everywhere and nowhere, disappearing into the way we see everything.

Rob Horning is an editor at Real Life.