And furthermore ...

One Man's Treasure encourages the use of anonymous photographs posted here to illustrate books and album covers.
If an image appeals to you, contact John Toohey at

Sunday, 19 December 2010


 Anonymous postcards

To me, photography is an art of observation. It's about finding something interesting in an ordinary place... I've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.
Elliott Erwitt

Maybe it’s not hugely interesting but it still is that we look at photographs differently when we don’t know who took them. Not only are we much more tolerant of an anonymous photographer’s flaws, they can actually make the image more impressive. The photographer who took this shot of the Turkish footballers may have been a professional in the sense he was paid to take it but a real professional would have aware of the shadow and done something to be rid of it. It’s the shadow however that makes this photograph. Without it the image would be very ordinary. It’s as though we need a name before we can begin a proper critique. 

Everybody knows what a bad painting is; it’s one we glance at and move past. The same applies to bad writing or amateurish music, but a bad photograph can sometimes stop us in our tracks. Somebody made a mistake. They either ignored basic rules or were ignorant of them and what we can get is an image elevated from the merely intriguing to the almost great. The only other medium so generous to creators and viewers is the cinema, where some awfully bad films are so strange we suspect we are experiencing a whole new point of view for the first time. 

Lee Hazlewood, the writer behind some classic ‘dumb’ songs like Some Velvet Morning, reminded an interviewer once that dumb does not mean stupid. Dumb means not knowing the limitations. Dumbness can accidentally push the boundaries. Without the innate quality of dumbness some great songs would have never made it to the recording studio, and vernacular photography would have ceased to be interesting years go. Take this photo of a group of men standing around an old wind up turntable. A ‘good’ photographer would have realized the dog nuzzling the man’s crotch and the fellow at the back with his arms upraised were just wrong. This photographer didn’t and what we get is a scene full of little incidents to look at. The coat on the wall is out of place, but it isn’t.  

The world’s museums are full of paintings by unknown artists attributed to ‘the school of (insert artist, studio or town here)’ but someone has at least made an effort to locate them within a frame of reference. With photographs we don’t care. The mystery of who took it and why is intrinsic to the image and to attempt to solve it would be to devalue the work. Which brings us to another point. Once we know the name of a photographer we can fix a certain monetary value to a work. Without a name the value becomes entirely personal. We have a form of anti-economics, where the vale is so purely subjective as to challenge the orthodoxy that an object’s value needs a certain consensus to legitimize it.

All of the photographs in this gallery are postcards, which may matter because somebody thought they were good enough to print and distribute. All of them are anonymous and some of them have an element of goodness that, if we knew the photographer and were that photographer well known, we’d be quick to label them minor or even major masterpieces. Others frustrate our expectations. The real point here is that we don’t have to label them, or rather we mustn’t. To do that would be to make the fatal mistake of calling them art, which they might be but which they also most certainly are not.


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