Found Photos of the American Roadside
I started collecting other people’s family photographs in 2013. It’s a strange avocation. Picking through piles of paper at flea markets, antique stores, and estate sales in search of once-treasured memories that are not my own.
Most are anonymous family snapshots, dating from images shot with the original Kodak camera in 1888 to 4 x 6-inch glossy photos from the 21st century. The latter prints aren’t that easy to come by as we’re living in an era in which we look at more photographs than at any point in history, yet fewer and fewer of those photographs are in a tangible form.
It’s a bit of a cliché among my fellow collectors of anonymous photos, but when asked what kind of image I’m looking for, I often answer, “Whatever catches my eye.” What that turns out to be can be different for each collector.
I tend to gravitate toward photos that have an air of mystery or ones that make me laugh.
In terms of more concrete categories, there are snapshots where we can glimpse the photographer’s shadow; images of people framed by tennis rackets; and pictures of women intentionally camouflaged by bushes, hedges, trees, and cornfields, which are known informally as “floraflage” photos.
On a less esoteric level, I love photos capturing the 20th-century American roadside. As an SCA member and longtime aficionado of the commercial-built environment, that’s not surprising.
When it comes to tourist photos, there are locations that snapshooters have photographed again and again.
Think of Claude Bell’s sculptures of Handsome Brady and Whiskey Bill at Knott’s Berry Farm. Untold numbers of tourists have taken photos of friends and family hanging with these characters.
Other photo finds reveal more obscure examples of commercial archeology. I was familiar, for example, with Jack Delano’s 1940 photos for the Farm Security Administration of the signs in the shape of a giant chow covering the One Spot Flea Killer factory building on Route 1 in Maryland. Only once, however, have I come across a family snapshot depicting the iconic building/signs.
The photos here are just a few favorites from my collection.
I wish I knew the details of each, but the fact is that the vast majority of found photos contain little or no information identifying time, place, subject, or photographer. Some depict well-known attractions, while others contain written annotations on the back of the image indicating location. Some images have just enough details to glean a bit of information from, and still, others remain mysteries.
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To read the rest of this article, members are invited to log in. Not a member? We invite you to join. This article originally appeared in SCA Road Notes, Summer 2022, Vol. 30, No. 2. SCA Road Notes is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.
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