The Call of the Wild

A tiny photo-booth portrait of a woman in a '40s suit and waved coiffure, her back to the camera. A seriously blurred snapshot of two young men in natty suits and hats clowning around outdoors. Another out-of-focus image of a man in a cowboy hat whose rearing white horse almost disappears beneath him. A negative of a boy in a plaid shirt sitting on a stairway. A body disappearing with a splash beneath the surface of a lake. An obscured view of the Empire State Building.

These are pictures you might not even notice at the flea market, but they're among the 85 anonymous photographs lined up, matted and framed, in the Metropolitan Museum's handsomely appointed Howard Gilman Gallery. Visitors used to finding these rooms hung with vintage masterpieces by photography's pantheon—Cameron, Stieglitz, Strand, and, most recently, Walker Evans—might be startled to find snapshots not unlike the ones they discarded as fatally inept. Snapshots and other vernacular photos have been infiltrating the art world for decades, primarily as acknowledged influences on the work of Evans, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Nan Goldin, and countless others who have defined the look of contemporary photography. But the snap itself is making its way into museum collections and onto museum walls. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, whose curators have displayed a strong interest in vernacular work, mounted a show called "Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life" in 1998, and historical surveys at New York's MOMA and the Met (notably the latter's spectacular Gilman collection show, "The Waking Dream") have included select examples of the genre. The New-York Historical Society's show of American lynching photos "Without Sanctuary," is composed almost entirely of snapshots by anonymous, amateur eyewitnesses, many of them turned into photo postcards.

The pictures at the Met, however, do come with a pedigree of sorts. They're all from the collection of Thomas Walther, a suave, 50-year-old, German-born New Yorker who, over the past two decades, has become a major player in the increasingly high-stakes world of fine-art photo collecting. The formidable curator-in-charge in the Met's department of photographs, Maria Morris Hambourg, calls Walther's holdings "one of the finest collections in private hands here in America," and photo dealers confirm its importance. Though its principal strength is in European modernism from between the wars, including the Bauhaus in particular depth, the collection ranges back to photography's earliest examples and right up to Adam Fuss and Vik Muniz. Some observers assume Hambourg's decision to make space in her galleries for Walther's flea-market finds is the opening gambit in the Met's campaign to acquire his whole collection, but she avoids the issue with diplomatic aplomb. "I don't know of any plans he has for the collection," she says, pointing out that while Walther has been generous to the Met, that didn't stop him from outbidding the museum for two photos at auction in London recently. At the very least, 16 of the images in "Other Pictures" are designated as "promised gifts."

Finding his place in the world: the collector’s alter ego, circa 1940
lent by the Thomas Walther Collection, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Finding his place in the world: the collector’s alter ego, circa 1940

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Other Pictures: Vernacular Photographs From the Collection of Thomas Walther
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Through August 27

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Walther, heir to a German machine-tool manufacturing fortune, is publicity-shy and evasive about the extent of this larger collection—he estimates its number at"somewhere between 1000 and 2000 pictures"—but he makes no secret of his enthusiasm for vernacular work. Though he regularly adds rarities to what he calls his "core collection"—including a sublime, mid-19th-century daguerreotype of clouds by Southworth and Hawes that he snapped up at Sotheby's last spring for $354,500—he says finding a great snapshot "gives me moreexcitement than anything right now."

Hambourg describes Walther as having "a great, intelligent eye"—an ability to zero in on the extraordinary that he's honed over the years, first by picking up the camera himself at an early age, then by, in his words, "looking very intently at images for the better part of 20 years." Though influenced and encouraged by photographers like Florence Henri who were family friends, Walther was dissuaded from going to school for such a minor art and studied, but never practiced, architecture instead. Still, the photographic urge was irrepressible, and it finds expression in casual, personal work; "I'm a great snapshooter," he says. Asked if he's always been a collector, he replies, "I have always collected visual impressions. I was always keenly interested in the world and finding my place in it."

For now, the place he's found is New York. Walther still describes himself as a Berliner, but he's lived here since the early '80s—he's currently in a Soho loft—and feels at home the way he no longer does in Europe. Showing a visitor page proofs of the Twin Palms book (Other Pictures, $50) that inspired the Met show, he displays a recent convert's zest for Americana at its nuttiest and most poignant. More often, however, he comments on a 50-cent found photo's stylistic similarity to more famous and expensive work. "That's a perfect Magritte," he says, pointing to a picture of a man in a black fedora standing before his shadow on a wide, empty sidewalk. "Very Baldessari," he says about a woman perched on the fender of a Model T with her face blotted out by a white spot. A double exposure of two nude women posed against flower-patterned wallpaper, their bodies twisted together like a voluptuous pretzel, is compared to Hans Bellmer's erotica. Uncanny resemblances to Rauschenberg, Meatyard, Sheeler, Evans, even Deborah Turbeville are cited with the delight of someone practiced at digging out the diamond in the rough.

Hambourg and the Met's Mia Fineman, who wrote a lively essay for the Other Picturesbook, also note the formal correspondence between these anonymous photos and work by some of photography's greatest artists. But they all acknowledge that the reverse influence—of snapshot material on art photography—is much more pervasive and significant. And no matter how much Walther enjoys the game of matching styles, he's quick to admit that these similarities are merely "lucky coincidences"—part of the serendipitous pleasure of sifting for gold at the flea market, but, in the end, "never of much importance to me at all. I think the images speak for themselves."

And, indeed, they do. Walther's "other pictures" are among the quirkiest and most engaging photos in town right now. Full of accidents, mystery, and often confounding visual dislocation, they have the innocence and freestyle verve of folk art. But because they've all been selected by an extremely sophisticated eye, the pictures in this collection can't help but echo work that's far from artless. Walther says he didn't start buying snapshots until he was 10 years into his larger collection and had the confidence to pick up unattributed work at auction or from a dealer because he recognized and responded to its particular quality. "You sort of trust your judgment more and more, and establish those criteria yourself," he says. "I think you need that confidence in order to discover the significance in vastly overlooked, usually discarded objects like snapshots at the flea market, where you encounter them by the thousands."

So it's not surprising that some of Walther's snaps recall the Bauhaus's off-kilter panache or Italian Futurist time-lapse or Russian Constructivist agitation. Walther was already trained to seek out these qualities at their most refined; at the flea market, he could relax his criteria a bit, but his eye remained highly discriminating. Speaking of his core collection, he says, "I was attracted to peculiar emanations of the human spirit," and that's just what you'll find in "Other Pictures": weird history, lovely lunacy, the call of the wild.

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