The Ethics and Aesthetics of Anonymous Photography

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“Enthusiasm, patience and sunblock” is what Robert Flynn Johnson credits with keeping him going in the never-ending search for anonymous photographs. On June 24, the author of The Face in the Lens: Anonymous Photographs talked with host Scott Shafer on KQED Radio about the aesthetics and ethics of said “accidental art”.

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Often sifting through hundreds of images at flea markets and estate sales before coming across a striking image, Johnson belies a passion that transcends his position as Curator Emeritus for the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Over the years, he’s collected a number of “friends in low places,” to help him with his search.

Because these photos were taken by anonymous photographers of (mostly) anonymous subjects, they don’t carry any inherent value. Rather, their attraction lies in their furnishing of “raw material for one’s imagination,” which allows the viewer to create a story befitting her personal whims.

Beyond a dispassionate viewer’s initial attraction to an anonymous photo, there crouches a deeper ethical dilemma. Photographs are precious, meant to mark important moments: birth, death, marriage. And so Johnson reminds us that to find these mementos stuffed into boxes at a vintage shop indicates a rupture that lead to their abandon.

Johnson brings up an interesting dilemma.

While he is clearly dedicated to the art of photography and recognizes the power of accidental masterpieces by unidentified shutter-clickers, there remains the question of respect for the people who lost these photos.

In guise of mute response, the author includes a photo of his own mother, taken back in 1917 by a nameless photographer, in his book. In this manner, he puts his own family up for public viewing along with many unknowns.

Like slowing down to scrutinize a car crash, The Face in the Lens furnishes powerful imagery for the curious voyeur.

An exhibition of 50 photos from Robert Flynn Johnson’s private collection is currently on display at Modernism, through late August, located at 685 Market Street.

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