Welcomed afternoon rays pour through the windows and shower the thick adobe walls at Canyon Road’s Matthews Gallery.
In a backroom, Jordan Eddy, the gallery’s director of communications-cum-curator goes through a box containing 50 or so found images to be featured in Familiar Strangers, an exhibit centering on vernacular photography.
“We don’t know anything about them, except that they have some sort of aesthetic appeal,” Eddy says, trying to make sense of the photographs.
The assemblage came together after Eddy and gallery owner Lawrence Matthews scoured area flea markets, antique shops and estate sales looking for pictures that popped.
“We have absolutely no idea,” Eddy says of the photos’ provenance—a departure for the gallery known for carrying works by the likes of Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec.
“The idea is to look at them in a variety of ways,” he continues, the hustle and bustle of people checking out Passport to the Arts permeating though. Eddy says he heavily researched found photography in the months leading to the show. “It’s still an emerging, not a totally respected art form,” he explains.
“I think it’s that tension between the mystery of…it’s like you don’t know who did it or why,” he says when asked what makes for a good picture, “but when you look at a found photograph, you are suddenly trying to figure out the psychology between the subject and the photographer.”
Juxtaposing the mundane with hints of sublime, forgotten moments of a couple posing in front of a petrified tree at a national forest, a freshly landed trapeze artist and a plaid-clad boy riding his bicycle pepper the exhibit.
He picks up a picture depicting three youths, possibly members of a marching band.
“You can see she’s really giving him the eye, and maybe he’s looking at the other boy or he’s looking off into the distance; he’s maybe a little uncomfortable,” Eddy elaborates. “You’re looking at this, judging and picking out all these clues.”
Another picture, the one of the boy on the bike, also leaves room for interpretation.
Eddy expands, “He looks kind of grim and he’s running over his fathers shadow. You think, ‘This must be his dad taking the picture and he’s heading towards him because he’s mad at him,’ and then you realize that you’re talking about your own dad and your own life.”
For Matthews, the move is part of a “much larger trend,” one aided by films like Finding Vivian Maier and a current obsessive wave around all things nostalgia and Americana.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do it was because it’s a way of showing people that art is in the eye of the beholder,” he says adding that “when you curate a show like this, the curator in a sense, becomes an artist as well.”
Matthews says tongue-in-cheek moments, as well as bona fide head-scratchers make for a good vernacular photograph, one that though might not scream “Art in capital letters,” still possesses its own sensibility.
The idea that showing anonymous auteurs might devaluate the gallery’s current pieces on display, Matthews says, never crossed his mind.
“All the artists I’ve shown them to loved it, they thought it was fantastic,” he states. “The impulse of art—whether you’re a practicing artist or someone who’s taking a snapshot of your girlfriend—is the same, which is you’re trying to capture a moment; you’re trying to be creative in a certain way.”
Though the subjects are unknown, Eddy says certain relatability can be expected.
“Because you know nothing about the subjects in the photographs, you’re really actually telling your own story in the end.”