We've Got Tons of Old Photographs in a Big Bin, but Why?
Updated: Nov 12
The History of Using Photos for Art
Usually, new technologies are used in ways that their inventors would have never dreamed. So as the medium of photography became commonplace by the end of the 1800s, it comes as no surprise that by the beginning of the 20th-century, its initial and simple purpose – documentation and portraiture – would be exposed to and turned upside-down by the whimsical, artistic, curious human will.
Not long after photography was accepted as a core medium, Cubism, the early 20th-century avant-garde art movement, swooped in to screw things up. Well, not really. But Cubism and its kin would prove to remold photography and its simplicity forever. Cubism, most notably practiced and founded by Pablo Picasso, took a radical new approach to depicting reality, and in particular, the human body. Objects and figures were broken down into distinct planes, emphasizing the two-dimensional flatness of the canvas, breaking from the tradition of creating the illusion of real space, which had dominated art from the Renaissance onwards. It was an attempt at revitalizing the tiredness of Western art.
Above: Pablo Picasso was at the forefront of Cubism, delving into early-form collaging.
With the outbreak of the first World War, a new revolutionary art and cultural revolution was set into motion. A direct descendant of Cubism, Dada or Dadaism was born in Switzerland in 1916 as an outcry against the horrors and confusion of modernity and war, and an attempt to reclaim the mediums that defined their generation, namely, the printed word and photography. As the medium of photography became the newest subject of manipulation for artists to tell their stories, the modern-day collage was born.
Dadaists produced works as outlandish and nonsensical as the name itself. Named after a word that had no meaning at all, Dada artwork developed as a far-left reaction to World War I, consisting of artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society. Instead, they chose to express nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works. While sculpture and public performance were core aspects of Dada art, the contemporary collage, utilizing photos and various other media, was also result of Dada anarchism.
Taking photos, newspapers, books, and scrambling them on paper to create highly distorted images of non-reality, Dadaists sought to emphasize the alienation and absurdity of war and the modern world. Disjointed bodies, mix-matched words, and paradoxical imagery were common in their collages. While the movement died rather quickly, the collage never did. Using found media to produce art never truly went away.
Today, at Yesterday’s News, the success of our photo bin shows us just how alive the collaging and art community really is.
Don't know what the photo bin is?
Here's a quick run down.
What is the photo bin?
Sitting in a metal basin at the back of our shop sits hundreds of old snapshots. From wallet-sized portraits to full-scale landscapes, the bin offers our customers a journey into a jumbled version of the past. The photos are not organized by size, age, place, or people, so the bin becomes a mission for any customer who decides to dive into its labyrinth.
There are no names, addresses, or backstories – it’s up to you to decide which photo means what. They are the unclaimed pieces of someone’s history, and our customers provide them with new homes. Why our customers buy the photos is up to them: for an art project, a collage, a gift, a unique piece of home decor, or maybe just because an image speaks to them and they don’t want to leave without it.
No matter the reason, the photos in the bin continue to be a staple feature of the shop, an on-going treasure hunt for images that resonate with us. Perhaps, like anything else, our customers are simply searching for something that makes them feel. Looking through photos of strangers takes on a whole new meaning when it's not on an Instagram feed.
Where do they come from?
We get our photos from a wide variety of sources, the same way that we get our furniture, clothing, bric-a-brac, and other vintage items: chance. Every time we enter a buying transaction, what we find is often a mystery until the moment we find it. We may dig up some old dishware that sparkles under the dust, or pull a stunning coffee table out of a pile of clothing – often we are surprised by the things we find, and some of our most shocking discoveries have been forgotten photographs.
In a house being cleaned out by a company, where all of the unsold items will be thrown in the trash, saving forgotten family albums and photos unclaimed by anyone became a method of preserving what would otherwise be lost to the past. Often deemed worthless or junk by the home executor, we’ve found that these soon-to-be gone photos have a chance at a second life at our shop. So we make an offer, buy them, and bring them back to Brooklyn with us.
Why does it matter?
Telling this story matters because often-times, we are asked why would you sell somebody’s old photos? At face-value, the prospect of selling someone’s memories is disturbing. But it is in the act of rescuing these photos from the fate of ending up in a landfill that we defend the bin in the backroom.
Without the bin, these snapshots, faces, places, and moments would be gone forever, literally. The moments captured on cameras by individuals across the country are first-hand documents about how life used to be. Their photos show us how so much has changed: the landscape, fashion, our daily lives, our homes, our family structures. They also show us how much is very much the same: babies, happiness, falling in love, family, the concept of home, holidays, celebration. If nothing else, we defend the bin in the backroom because it represents the cumulative history of being human!
At 25 cents a piece, we try to make our photo bin a fun experience, and price it as to not exploit the people whose lives were behind the camera. Every day, people young and old delve into the bin and explore hundreds of different perspectives. Some people take pieces home with them, some prefer to create something new with them, and others simply love to look. As long as photographs are bound to be thrown away, we are bound to rescue them. With respect for the people whose lives can only be seen through the images they captured, we hope that by letting the right people keep them, they may live on.
Thank you for reading!
Check out our latest Instagram post talking about our photo bin here.
Written by: Helaina Ferraioli