(Above) Number One, silver gelatin print, c. 1945; Talk about a powerful, mysterious image! These two men appear not to want their photograph taken. It’s just a very different, unique kind of snapshot.
(Above) Number Two, silver gelatin print, c. 1950; Ooo-h baby, I love this. I has all the qualities of a great mystery novel, or classical art. You have purity (innocence, with the baby); you have evil (the dark shadow); and you have the garden hose serving as the “snake” in the garden.
(Above) Number Three, silver gelatin print, c. 1935; You couldn’t prop a photo as wonderful as this picture today. I could talk about this image a lot. The child warrior rides again, the last of her lost tribe! It’s magical.
(Above) Number Four, silver gelatin print, c. 1955; If you know the work of Sally Mann, this is a perfect match. As an image, what I find compelling about this image is the subject matter. On the left, you have this little girl, kinda awkward and goofy, eating a watermelon. On the right, a girl of the same age either putting on or taking off her shirt. What a beautiful shoulder, the angle of her arm! It’s a statement about the emergence from adolescence to adulthood—an American “Venus de Milo.” This image has it all.
(Above) Number Five, silver gelatin print, c. 1940; This picture, a mistake made during the exposure, actually has perfect tonality. For some reason it is looking lighter online. The light spot sits perfectly around the little girls head, like a protective bubble. The mother looks none too happy.

WHENEVER I EXHIBIT MY COLLECTION OF VERNACULAR PHOTOS, I always leave each image “untitled.” That is because I do not want to contaminate a viewer’s thinking as to what they are looking at with my wild guess inference as to what is going on in the picture. I wasn’t there—so your guess is as good as mine. And I sincerely mean that. These images are mysteries as to who, what, when and where. We might be able to get close—but unless someone in the photo steps up to identify the situation, we are left with our own resources to figure it out. Things are not always what they seem.

Why do I call these great images? Well, since I didn’t take them, I feel much like a curator at a museum. I found the images, selected them, gave them a new life. Therefore, I should be able to discuss them with a critical eye.

Here are my criteria for the qualities of a great photograph.

1) Compositionally, it must be extremely good if not perfect. It must work, and deal with formal design issues, if even abstractly.

2) Tonality must be extremely good. There is nothing more frustrating than a photograph that is missing this quality. A severely over or under-exposed image that is great in all the other categories can make a good (but sensitive) man cry.

3) Subject matter: can be anything, but the image must be powerful. It must leave room for interpretation, beg for answers. It must have several levels of interest, both visually and intellectually. As an image, how rare is it that you would ever see something like this again?

4) Condition: The physical condition of the picture must be at least “good,” to excellent.

5) Comparison: This is very personal to my collecting eye, but the image must remind me of some great photographer’s work. Does the piece remind me of little Sally Mann, WeeGee, Friedlander, or any other photographer of the 19th or 20th Century? If it does—it “connects” to art history. I like that.