My phone is so stuffed with photos that it takes me, no lie, 143 vigorous thumb flicks — past 41,407 pictures — to scroll back through time to its very first snap, a ho-hum shot of music-festival fans under a wide Texas sky. I’ve got plenty more elsewhere. Everyone does: on hard drives, backed up in the cloud, hung on walls and perched on shelves, scrambled in shoe boxes, sorted in old-school albums.
We’re all drowning in our own pictures — last year, we humans took an estimated 1.3 trillion of them. I keep pictures that I never look at (an acrobatic squirrel), others I look at immediately after I take them but rarely if ever again (rooftop sunset), some I flip to often (children, girlfriend).
And then there are the photos I reach for, with intention, a couple of times a year, when I find myself needing to look at life with different eyes.
Photos like this one: an older couple smack in the center of the driest, dustiest, emptiest parcel of land you’ve ever seen. It’s probably a hundred years old, one corner bent, its surface slightly faded by time. He sits, she stands, and both look ticked off. I do not know these people.
And this: A large family gathers at a long table in the kind of moment people build beer ads around. It’s golden hour, and the sun filters through the trees, the windows, the half-full pitchers. This might be the 1930s, and yet you can practically hear the clinking, the laughing.
These pictures, taken by average people with average cameras, are among the thousand or so that I’ve picked up at flea markets, junk shops, garage sales and, once in a while, on eBay. I started noticing these “found” photos (the fancy name is “vernacular photography”) maybe a decade ago. Noticing turned to looking turned to hunting. Somehow, I’ve accumulated enough photos of long-dead people that I have no connection with to stuff a dozen slate gray 11-by-17-by-3.5 archival boxes.
I’m particularly drawn to quietly composed pictures that hold the sense of an unfinished story. Exhibit A: that older couple staring out from that dusty landscape. Why is there a chair in a spot where it appears nothing else exists for miles? I looked at the picture a few times before I noticed that thin sticks sprout from the ground. Were they homesteaders? Would a town grow here? A city? Someone posed them here, so the moment or place held some importance. But what?
Not every shot is so mysterious. I have photos from the 1920s of people doing pretty much the same things we do today: drinking booze, kissing, cross-dressing, picnicking by a pond, holding their children in the air with a love so fierce you can feel it a hundred years later.
Of course, those children are gone now. As is everyone sitting around that long table as the sun sets and the glasses clink. They lived, worked, made their share of bad decisions, loved a bunch and surely suffered some. But these “everyday” photos haunt me for the simple reason that I have pictures just like them, where I am the full-eyed father stretching my own children toward a brilliant blue sky. Images like this hang all over my house, reminding me of moments when my heart felt full to bursting. I love these pictures.
I also hate them. They remind me of time going by. They remind me of what I had and what’s gone. These pictures warn me how fast and fragile those moments are. There’s my son learning to ride a tricycle; as I write this, he’s driving across the country with his girlfriend. Probably speeding. Get out of the way, these pictures say; something new is coming. They leave me wobbly, unsure whether to look forward or back.
Which is why at moments of uncertainty and confusion, I turn to my gray boxes of found photos. When it looked as if Covid-19 would swallow New York, I pulled a box off the shelf. “I need to categorize the new finds,” I told my girlfriend. She arched her eyebrows. Even I didn’t buy that line. Those hundred-year-old photos center me. They give me something that my own photos don’t. When I look at the found photos and consider all that these people lived through — world wars, the Depression, epidemics with no medicine, loss and hardship I can hardly grasp — I’m given a far longer view. They take me out of myself, make my pangs of the heart feel less about me and more about all of us.
I get emotional when I look at them, but not in the same way as I do the photos of my children. With my own photos, I hear the fast ticking of the secondhand. The old pictures keep a more steady time: humanity’s slow and sweeping waltz.
It’s not lost on me that the only reason I’m able to pluck these beautiful images from some forlorn flea-market bin and meditate on the lives that came before mine is that they were discarded. Did the younger generation not recognize that child on the porch as their great-grandma? Did they know but not care? And then this question arises: Will I be the last person on Earth to ever see her face?
The neuroscientist and author David Eagleman has written that we all die three deaths: “The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” I would say there’s a fourth: the moment the last remaining picture of you is seen for the final time. These found photographs not only remind me of this delicate thing we run both toward and away from — time — but they also hold something else. The humbling, steadying truth that, one day, that’s all we’ll be: a photo.
Bill Shapiro is a former editor in chief of Life magazine and a co-author of “What We Keep.”
Photographs from the collection of Bill Shapiro