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Accidental Mysteries 

Accidental Mysteries
by John Foster
As a longtime collector of folk art works and other objects whose makers have been unknown to me, I am deeply moved by the ability of these items to communicate, time and in different contexts than those in or for which they were originally created, meanings their makers may not have intended for them to convey.
For example, a sign produced 75 years ago, intended to simply give direction, today may suggest new meanings to viewers informed by postmodernist critical thinking. It is a fascination with such perceived new meanings, reflecting a kind of magical power that certain objects have to reinvent themselves, that drives many collectors in many different fields.

"When it comes to looking
photographs, like an archeologist,
I search for abandoned images
that may inspire me or
excite my eye."

When it comes to looking for photographs, like an archeologist, I search for abandoned images that may inspire me or excite my eye. It is possible that some visitors to this exhibition may not see what I have seen in the photographs on display. These enigmatic images, whose attachments to specific times, places and families have become unglued over the years, take on a new life in a gallery or exhibition setting.
Traditionally, viewing snapshots has entailed the close-up, intimate handling of photo prints. As a way of inviting visitors to this exhibition to consider the photographs featured here not only as snapshots whose makers we may never know, but also as creative works in their own right, I have digitally enlarged several of them to help call attention to their inherent artistic qualities. I have not used digital technology to alter these photographs in any way. In fact, according to my own rule, the act of adding or deleting anything to or from these found images, of doing anything that might be construed as an artistic intervention on my part that could affect their essence or authenticity, would be unacceptable. (Thus, the only instances have been the removal of obtrusive dust particles or surface scratches.)
The vernacular snapshots on view here are quite varied, from serious picture making attempts to candid, serendipitous moments. They offer evidence of a tradition of picture-taking on special occasions or to document family members and friends that, in many cultures, is or has been mostly learned at home. Sometimes, it turns out, these photographs made casually, as personal souvenirs, may beremarkably artistic, too. Usually made by amateur photographers whose training may have amounted to little more than point-andclick, these images can sometimes turn out to be unaffected, accidental masterpieces. Examined in new settings, outside family albums, wallets or keepsake frames, and from points of view other than those of the people who created them, these images can and often do take on new meanings that differ dramatically from those they were originally intended to convey.
John and Teenuh Foster share a passionate interest in collecting works of art by self-taught artists, as well as anonymous objects that to them, share attributes of great design and mystery. They consider vernacular photography to be a long overlooked genre of folk art, capturing elements of history, sociology, psychology and often "accidental" moments on film. John is a founder and past-president of ENVISION Folk Art of Missouri, where he also served as editor of the Journal that he produced for ten years. He is a member of the Advisory Board of The Folk Art Society of America and the Nek Chand Foundation in London, UK.
June 23, 2007 – Jan. 27, 2008
[Press release for the exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum]
Salem, Mass.—Opening June 23, 2007, at the Peabody Essex Museum, Accidental Mysteries explores the power of the everyday snapshot in modern culture, presenting 69 vintage images of surprising beauty and creativity. This engaging and popular traveling exhibition is based on the John and Teenuh Foster Collection of vernacular photography. Vernacular photography refers to images taken for personal use: family portraits, travel albums, holiday photos and more. Many of the photographs contain accidental double exposures or other darkroom mistakes, creating unintentionally idiosyncratic compositions. Viewed outside their intended context, the snapshots take on the reflections of the viewer, who is left to ponder the mysterious circumstances in which these photographs came to be. Coordinated by PEM Assistant Curator Karen Kramer, Accidental Mysteries remains on view until Jan. 27, 2008.
"We are delighted to show these compelling images from the Foster Collection at the museum," says PEM Chief Curator, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, "They are excellent representations of found photography in which the artist in all of us––trained, or otherwise––is celebrated."
Since the first affordable camera was made available by Kodak in 1900, snapshot photography has become a ubiquitous feature of everyday life, a means of documenting and preserving our personal histories. Accidental Mysteries explores the tradition of picture-taking in a critical context, asking viewers to contemplate the role of photography beyond the keepsake, but as a body of work produced by our society at large. Recognized as a legitimate and important field of study, vernacular photography is both a form of individual artistic expression and a societal practice whose meaning defies easy interpretation.
"These enigmatic images, whose attachments to specific times, places and families have become unglued over the years, take on a new life in a gallery or exhibition setting," writes John Foster in the booklet accompanying the exhibition. The majority of works included are mounted in their original snapshot format (from 2x3 to 4x6 inches) in order to retain the intimate feel of a personal photo print; some of the snapshots were digitally enlarged by Foster to emphasize their inherent artistic qualities. Accidental Mysteries is organized into three interpretive sections—"Posing", "Chance" and "The Fantastic". Foster also composed the titles for these anonymous works based on his responses to their subjects, compositions, and effects.
In "Posing", most snapshots center on the subject, usually a willing participant. Styles range from the formally staged, to the humorous or whimsical, and spontaneously candid. Cut Faces is a typical family portrait, except that all the adult faces have been cut out or seemingly defaced. The viewer is drawn into the history of this unknown family, creating possible fates and explanations for the questions posed by the image.
"Chance" contains artistic and unusual compositions, whether deliberate or by happenstance. Melon Moment captures two girls enjoying the freedom and possibility of summer: one bites joyously into a giant slice of watermelon, while the other slips in—or out—of her cotton dress. The girls are seemingly unaware of the camera’s presence, and the image captures the spontaneity and beauty of their unguarded moment.
"The Fantastic" celebrates darkroom experimentation and the creativity of amateur photographers. While some works were made by accident, others are clearly manipulated, revealing the ingenuity of untrained photographers in altering perception. Toy Crashed Plane is an obvious play in scale: using items of miniature proportions, the photographer has realized a very lifelike image of a plane crashing into the desert. Works in this section possess a sense of the strange and otherworldly, blending the focus of reality and fiction.
Accidental Mysteries is accompanied by a full-color booklet produced by John Foster about vernacular photography and the Collection. 



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