TULSA, Oklahoma — In the exhibition Unexpected at the Philbrook Museum Downtown, we see a series of 40 anonymous vernacular photographs from the collection of writer and photography collector Marc Boone Fitzerman, curated by the museum’s director Rand Suffolk, that offer slices of America from the 1930s through the 1960s. But unlike a typical photography exhibition, in which the name of the photographer, the year the photo was shot, what type of camera it was shot on, and who the image belongs to are all known, in Unexpected we are given few clues — and that’s what makes this show snap like the shutter of a Kodak Brownie camera, which was probably used to take a number of these pictures.
“Is there one good image in all of us? One good drawing?” asks Suffolk. “They were amateur photographers [shooting these images]; they were not setting out to make something fantastic. Some of these might just be happy accidents.” Fitzerman, the collector of these vernacular photographs, began his collection after discovering a beautiful image at a roadside antique mall in Atoka, Oklahoma, while en route to Dallas. He had just decided to stop for a snack, and a quick spin through the antique mall when he came across this photograph of a young man, who he describes as a sort of Renaissance prince. Besides that, Fitzerman’s father happened to be a dedicated amateur photographer, and it was one of his dad’s photographs of his brother and uncle that he remembers seeing and feeling that it, truly, expressed something deeper that would not otherwise be seen. “I was enchanted with the idea that a normal human being could create an object of some beauty and persuasiveness, and that I could do it with simple technology available to almost anyone,” says Fitzerman.
It’s curious to note that you can’t tell what types of cameras the 40 photographs in the exhibition were shot on. Instead, the images are only placeable by looking for time period signifiers such as fashion, automobiles, hairstyles, and architecture — those surface level visuals that help decode the passing of time. But what does the photograph “Farmhouse Group,” which shows four people gathered ‘round a farmhouse in what appears to be the midst of an argument or perhaps just a gathering, tell us? It is just a snapshot. A man’s long shadow casts across the grass; an older woman crosses her arm. It must be the end of a long day on their farm, somewhere. It doesn’t tell us much, but it says enough for us to recognize that something is going on.
“Kids on Porch” just happens to capture a striking, almost cartoon-like moment between a toddler and a baby. They are both wearing white, dress-like gowns, sitting together on the planks of a wooden floor. The toddler looks over at the baby as if to say “knock it off, pal!”, and we can imagine the two of them as people in the same poses in their late 20s, mid-40s, and early 80s. This is the decisive, timeless moment, captured by some amateur photographer — and we will never know the context or why this photograph came to be. The image titled “Man and Horse” is similarly fascinating; here we see a man with the front legs of a horse hoisted over his shoulders; the light up top is so bright —or perhaps the photograph is just light-bleached enough — that we can imagine a unicorn coming out from between the horse’s upright ears. Are these photographs more fascinating because of the way they offer slices of anonymous mini-narratives, or because they offer a look back into a time when photographs were not digitized, posted, detailed, and forgotten?
These are questions for the viewer to decide. In fact, each viewer is offered a magnifying glass at the beginning of the exhibition in order to look closer — like an old-school detective would a crime scene. Not only does this make the viewing experience more pleasurable, but it also diverts the impulse to take photos of these photos with our smartphones. Instead, each photograph exists as a memory both to keep and remember again.
Unexpected continues at the Philbrook Museum Downtown (116 East Brady Street, Tulsa) through May 18.