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Experimental feature

Vernacular imagery has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years. A growing number of contemporary artists and photographers are making use of everyday snapshots as part of their oeuvres. Since as far back as the 1970s, photographers have been re-imagining discarded imagery in an effort to debunk traditional ideas of what is seen as having artistic merit. American photographers Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman took photographs of photographs in response to what they saw as an overloaded and self-referential industry. Earlier, seminal photographer, Stephen Shore experimented with a vernacular style to strip down his images and communicate his perceptions of the US with what he described as “heightened cultural reference”.

In 1989, German artist Joachim Schmid declared: “No more new images until the old ones have been used up!” In his first UK retrospective, The Photographers’ Gallery is showing a selection of the works he has created from “found” photographs collected over the past 25 years. His signature series “Pictures from the Street” – made up of 900 images – is too vast to show in its entirety. Instead Schmid has randomly selected 100 samples to fit the space. The images that make the cut range from photo-booth and ID captures to family snapshots and portraits, many of which are creased, trodden on, burnt at the edges or have holes torn out, like mini jigsaw puzzles with the final pieces missing.

In 1990 Schmid created his Institute for the Reprocessing of Used Photographs with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Taking out advertising space in national newspapers, he offered to reprocess or “ecologically dispose” of the public’s unwanted photographs. In “Photogenic Drafts, 1991” he makes use of a set of negatives sent to him by a Bavarian studio photographer. At first glance the negatives appeared unusable as they had been cut in half to prevent re-printing. But the consistency of the poses and angles allowed Schmid to splice together images to create hybrids that play with questions of identity, ageing and genetic inheritance.

By contrast, “Statics” is a series of vast collages of shredded photographs that create a jumble of visual information, echoing the paradox of modern-day attitudes to photographic imagery – there are too many images to register, yet we still have an insatiable desire for more. Having rarely shown a photograph he has taken himself for 20 years, Schmid acts as part curator, part social commentator, assembling groups of fragmented images that point at social rituals and questions of identity, but that reveal very little.

A few doors down, the gallery’s café has been utilised as an appropriately makeshift space for four specialist photographic fanzines in a concurrent exhibition. Displaying anonymous ephemera donated by readers, the carefully edited contents of Useful Photography, Ohio, Permanent Food and Found magazine are attached, seemingly randomly, to huge college-style noticeboards. Alongside snapshots and photo ID cards are love letters, scribbled notes, poetry on napkins and doodles, many of which hold more interest than the images themselves. Wide open to interpretation, these voyeuristic glimpses into the lives of other people inevitably leave the viewer with a series of unanswered questions – the beauty being that the unknown and unseen leaves room for us to create our own narratives.

Perhaps the current interest in everyday snapshots reflects society’s ever-fervent fascination with the “ordinary” person portrayed in reality television, webcams and blogs. Or perhaps, more simply, as digital photography becomes omnipresent and old-style photographic prints increasingly rare, the previously rejected or forgotten photograph is regarded as an ever-more precious commodity.

‘Joachim Schmid: Selected Photoworks 1982-2007’ and ‘Found, Shared: The Magazine Photowork’, both until June 17, The Photographers’ Gallery, London WC2H, tel +44 20 7831 1772. Admission free

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