Cut Faces, c. 1955Girls with Watermelon, c. 1955

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.

About the John and Teenuh Foster Collection

From forays to antique shops, flea markets and auctions, John and Teenuh Foster have assembled a remarkable collection of vernacular photography. Motivated by their interest in object-artifacts and by their fascination with the stories that the photographs imply or convey, the Fosters have collected hundreds of vintage snapshots, from which the museum has selected 70 for this exhibition.


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