An Orbit Obit: The Lost Art of Found Photographs

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown girl

You used to find them everywhere. Someone else’s photographs, lost, torn to bits, or simply discarded as substandard. Dropped from wallets, ripped-up in tear-stained anger, fallen from automobile door pockets and sun visors, blown by the wind. Once, an entire paper bag full of slides from a stranger’s family vacation out West.

O, the riches of big box parking lots of yore! Rejected photos were so often immediately jettisoned right onto the lined pavement of the Target or Rite Aid that processed them. You can picture the disgruntled customer flipping through a just-picked-up batch in the front seat of his or her sedan. For every stray finger obscuring the lens or flash that didn’t pop, a picture tossed right out the window. This pre-blogger was even known to rescue misfires directly from photo processing waste bins[1].

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown baby

The Orbit‘s files are stuffed with dozens–probably hundreds–of found photos, but now that the world’s gone digital, we almost never come across them anymore. So that’s what made this recent find such a gas.

Kirsten Ervin[2] occasionally merges civic duty and her daily constitutional with a cleanup of litter found in Lawrenceville’s Arsenal Park. That will make it’s own fine story–hopefully one day appearing on these very virtual pages–but we’ll leave the telling of it to Kirsten. Suffice to say that among the many curiosities that eluded the waste bin and made it home was this collection of photographs.

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown boy

What a find indeed! Five wallet-sized color photos, one each of two babies (or, possibly, two photos of the same baby), one boy, and two young ladies of indeterminate age. In each, their time spent outdoors in the elements of Arsenal Park has drastically affected the images[3]. A girl’s posed smile barely visible through a swirl of dreamy fog–her red hair and purple sweater psychedelically lifting and blurring into the background. The pair of infants seem blissfully unaware of an encroaching ooze. The woman’s big grin and shoulder length brown hair the last recognizable elements as her face and torso dissolve into the picture’s white background.

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown baby

They’re arresting images, and it’s everything the chase for found photos ever promised. The standard questions are there: who are these people? and how did the photos end up here? But it’s also so much more. The beautiful decay and accidental destruction of the original pictures is lovely and haunting and thoroughly thought-provoking. If these are the last found photos we ever come across, we’ll know we went out with a bang.

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown woman

All photos courtesy of Kirsten Ervin.

[1] Yes, this is kind of cheating, and no, we’re not proud–but this story isn’t about that.
[2] Full disclosure: a full time resident of Chez Orbit.
[3] Cleaning the mud-soaked photographs following their return home may have inadvertently contributed to the image distortion.

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