Essays



Accidental Mysteries
by John Foster

As a longtime collector of folk art works and other objects whose makers have been unknown to me, I am deeply moved by the ability of these items to communicate across time and in different contexts than those in or for which they were originally created, meanings their makers may not have intended for them to convey.

For example, a sign produced 75 years ago, intended to simply give direction, today may suggest new meanings to viewers informed by postmodernist critical thinking. It is a fascination with such perceived new meanings, reflecting a kind of magical power that certain objects have to reinvent themselves, that drives many collectors in many different fields.



When it comes to looking for photographs, like an archeologist, I search for abandoned images that may inspire me or excite my eye. It is possible that some visitors to this exhibition may not see what I have seen in the photographs on display. 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.

Traditionally, viewing snapshots has entailed the close-up, intimate handling of photo prints. As a way of inviting visitors to this exhibition to consider the photographs featured here not only as snapshots whose makers we may never know, but also as creative works in their own right, I have digitally enlarged several of them to help call attention to their inherent artistic qualities. I have not used digital technology to alter these photographs in any way. In fact, according to my own rule, the act of adding or deleting anything to or from these found images, of doing anything that might be construed as an artistic intervention on my part that could affect their essence or authenticity, would be unacceptable. (Thus, the only instances have been the removal of obtrusive dust particles or surface scratches.)

The vernacular snapshots on view here are quite varied, from serious picture making attempts to candid, serendipitous moments. They offer evidence of a tradition of picture-taking on special occasions or to document family members and friends that, in many cultures, is or has been mostly learned at home. Sometimes, it turns out, these photographs made casually, as personal souvenirs, may beremarkably artistic, too. Usually made by amateur photographers whose training may have amounted to little more than point-andclick, these images can sometimes turn out to be unaffected, accidental masterpieces. Examined in new settings, outside family albums, wallets or keepsake frames, and from points of view other than those of the people who created them, these images can and often do take on new meanings that differ dramatically from those they were originally intended to convey.


John and Teenuh Foster share a passionate interest in collecting works of art by self-taught artists, as well as anonymous objects that to them, share attributes of great design and mystery. They consider vernacular photography to be a long overlooked genre of folk art, capturing elements of history, sociology, psychology and often “accidental” moments on film. John is a founder and past-president of ENVISION Folk Art of Missouri, where he also served as editor of the Journal that he produced for ten years. He is a member of the Advisory Board of The Folk Art Society of America and the Nek Chand Foundation in London, UK.

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