Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Expect the Unexpected; Using Found Photographs

My previous post on a series of digital drawings developed in early 2000, noted my use of found photographs that included vernacular images of individuals and family groups. The series originated from a body of drawings inspired by a collection of old photographs I purchased at a thrift store in the late 1980's. There were about thirty-five photographs of a family that appeared to span three generations, and whose relationship could be identified by strong resemblances to one another. There were a few first names and dates on several of the photos from the 50's and 60's, but nothing to clearly identify the people or their location except for one school picture with a man's name, the school, his grade and the year.

The photographs lay dormant for several years until the mid-1990's when I pulled the stack out of storage and began to consider using them in work. I had been scanning and manipulating photographs for a body of digital drawings I was developing, and as I browsed through this collection of intimate and personal family snap-shots, the images seemed ripe for exploring and producing new work. A number of my digital drawings, that included individuals and group scenes from the photographs, were exhibited across the US, and several were reproduced in publications including a 2001 South Carolina Triennial exhibition catalogue, the cover of Skirt magazine, and the exhibition announcement for the Rutger's National '96 drawing competition. My works with images of these individuals had begun to develop a life, or virtual life, of their own.

For several years I worked using part and whole sections from the photographs, never knowing details or if the individuals were living or deceased. In actuality, I began to develop my own narrative that played out in my head and in the work. Curiously, I was toying with an aspect of power and control over the images in my possession, and ultimately feeling a form of control over the individuals themselves. There was the aspect of including the figures in work and juxtaposing them in ways to my choosing, and there was the aspect of public exhibition and reproduction of the work in print and electronic media that fascinated and intrigued me with the idea of a virtual life that was developing for the images of these people, and evolving in a manner that was beyond my control. Irresponsible ?.....maybe. Selfish ?.... probably, but I continued.

In March of this year I was reading a local newspaper when I noticed a photograph in the obituary section that caught my eye, an almost exact reproduction of one of the photos in my collection of originals. It was one of the family members. There in print, was a small column of information with names, addresses, dates and details, that gave identity to the figures I had manipulated in art-making for many years. Unexpected? Yes, very unexpected and quite a surprise. It was eerie and odd, somewhat like the feeling experienced as a child when you are caught at something you know is restricted.

Class photo from the collection of originals.
Obituary Photo.

Original photo from the collection.
words not spoken © 1999
Jane Allen Nodine

Original photo from the collection.

obligatory response © 1999 • Jane Allen Nodine
McKissick Museum, Columbia, SC


Original photo from the collection.

indefinite concern © 1998
Collection State of SC

restrained resolve © 1998
Collection State of SC

don't look back © 1995
Jane Allen Nodine

conjunct suspension © 1999 Jane Allen Nodine

Original photo of a girl collaged into a mix-media drawing
soon to be published in Artist Among Us 2011


  1. This is fascinating. I remember seeing the work and figured they were family photos but to find that the people you have been "using" so to speak appeared in an obit is a tad creepy. Did you ever think of letting them know about your work or have you worried they would expect something from you? Good to see your work always. :)

  2. I worked with found photos a few years back because I resisted using those of my own family. I felt sorry for the people whose family snapshots had been sold off and wound up in some thrift store. I used them in xerographic prints and found that they did develop their own identity from being placed in different conditions.

    Your digital works with the photos are really transformative. I like them a lot and the people in them would probably enjoy finding out about their virtual lives.

  3. Tammy, good to hear from you and to see you are busy with your own art and blogging.
    I have not tried to locate or contact any of these people and have no plans on doing so. There is a lot of contemporary criticism and discussion about image ownership and I am interested in to watches as it progresses. The virtual world has created huge new territories for exploration so I guess we'll see how things pan-out.

    Nancy like you, I too felt a sense of loss when I first found these photos at a thrift store. They are so personal and intimate, yet lost and discarded. I guess my "finding" them and giving new life kept them from being forgotten.

    Thanks for the comments!