Melissa Holbrook Pierson collects vintage snapshots from people she has never met:
The genre of “found photography”—or, we might call it, inadvertent art—had a poignant moment in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Some of the thousands of lost family photos reworked by seawater and sludge, wearing a perversely gorgeous sorrow, were exhibited in the New York Times, where they landed a punishing blow: no more immediate, or bruising, statement on loss was ever hung on museum walls. But to their separated owners, seeing this distress to the image must have been like making a short visit to hell. The receiver changes the meaning, not to get all Reception Theory on you. An international group of technically savvy volunteers began Operation Photo Rescue (“Insurance Doesn’t Rescue Photos . . . But We Do”) after Hurricane Katrina, and they are now working with infinitesimal patience to digitally restore pictures nearly destroyed in the later disaster. Stuff, even houses, can be replaced (with enough money), but every photo records something that can ever exist only within its frame. People who lost everything say they want their pictures back most of all. That’s because they are the mausoleums of life’s minutes, and it is as sacrilegious to let the roof fall in on the documents that proved we were there, that we lived in exactly this form, as to neglect a loved one’s grave.
But when we are gone, who is there to care, really? I cart the boxes of my paper ephemera through the years, from house to house to house, and I make sure not to store them in the damp basement. Someone will want these someday, I half-consciously think, because to think otherwise is to imagine I don’t really matter.
(Photo: Family photos lie in the debris of a flood-damaged home on November 1, 2012 in the Ocean Breeze area of the Staten Island borough of New York City. By John Moore/Getty Images)