In a society where capturing everyday moments in photos is so pervasive, it’s hard to imagine when our images will become faded memories. Yet that experience is not so hard to understand when a stray snapshot is found in a drawer, or tucked in a book.
Who is in this picture? Where are they? What are they celebrating?
Carlisle-based photographer Nicole Dube’s interest in vintage photography led her to consider these questions as she purchased discarded photos at local flea markets and second-hand sales. Dube embarked upon a journey paved with photography that is termed “vernacular,” meaning native, indigenous or domestic, as well as “found,” referring to genre of photography and/or visual art based on the recovery of lost, unclaimed or discarded photographs.
Focusing upon images mostly from the 1920s through the 1970s, purchased as either negatives or slides, Dube scans and digitizes the original photographic medium and makes modifications to restore quality, correct damage or increase sharpness. As digital files, these images can now be printed for exhibition.
And for the first time, Dube shares her exploration of found vernacular photography in two concurrent exhibitions in Mechanicsburg in a group exhibition at Capital Joe’s Coffee, “Three Graces,” as well as in Harrisburg, in her solo exhibition, “Home Sick,” at the Susquehanna Art Museum.
Most of these “found photos” feature families and social gatherings and range from formal portraits to casual snapshots. In older, blurred, black-and-white images, as well as in the vibrant hues of the first generations of color photography, clear themes resurface representing our collective history and documenting our shared experiences, which connect this earlier era to the present.
Dube felt compelled to share these works. To her, these images are important because they serve as a time capsule of the lives of ordinary Americans of all ages and races who lived during the 20th century. These images depict events and emotions to which we can all relate; the excitement of summer vacation, the laughter at a family reunion, the nervousness of the first day of school.
Yet they differentiate themselves from the way we live today in terms of current style and the omnipresent modern relationship to the camera. These photos commemorated special occasions, when the use of the camera was a rare treat; today we carry our “cameras” with us everywhere, capturing the mundane to the noteworthy.
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One can conjure up a story of those depicted within the frame, divorced from the true (yet unknown) narrative. The imagined history from these pictures may even be more compelling than any mundane facts lost to the ages, making their viewing a personal creative experience for the audience.
Ultimately, what make these images successful are the undeniable artistic qualities of the works themselves. Through Dube’s editorial selection and ability to restore the power of the original, these pictures, though taken by amateurs, have the qualities of many of the recognized greats of modern photography, such as composition and subject.
Without such attention to these orphaned works, Dube feels an important part of our history will be lost forever. She refers to a quote by French artist Christian Boltanski who once said, “We all die twice—once when we actually die and once when no one on earth recognizes our photograph.”
Dube relates this to many of the unknown faces in the found photographs as having exhausted their first life. Yet now, as these images exist as unclaimed, these persons may be living out the last days of their second lives as memories.
Both Boltanski’s theory and Dube’s passion for these found images, offers them a chance at a second life, as a memory captured and reclaimed through a photograph.
Nicole Dube’s found vernacular photography is part of the exhibit “Three Graces” on display at Capital Joe Coffee, located at 36 W. Main St., Mechanicsburg until April 24.
Dube’s “Home Sick” is on display until April 29 at the Susquehanna Art Museum at The Marty and Tom Philips Family Art Center. It is located at 1401 N. Third St., Harrisburg. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. General admission is $8; $5 for teachers, seniors and veterans; free for children 12 and younger. Free parking is available at the rear of the building.