Since 2017, Lee Shulman, a filmmaker and founder of The Anonymous Project, has been collecting photographic slides of anonymous people. He has unearthed forgotten gems in attics and lent a second life to family memories captured in Kodachrome. The Polka Factory invites viewers to the exhibition American Stories, featuring previously unseen photographs.
This a forgotten ritual: bringing together the whole family and neighbors around a projector loaded with Kodachrome slides. Scrolling through a joyful parade of memories: seaside holidays, a brand-new car, baseball games. Relishing in the reactions of the audience. It is a ritual so well forgotten that those under thirty find it hard to imagine what the slides collected by Lee Shulman were for before the digital age: “Instagram is nothing new!,” the creator of The Anonymous Project remarks jokingly. “The slides we collect have never been printed. They were meant to be shown at home, to family and friends. This was high definition of the time.”
For most of the twentieth century, Kodachrome technology fulfilled the functions that social networks have today: sharing the good times, but also showing off, for example, the newly acquired TV set, back when television was cutting edge. But what happens to these slides decades later? They collect dust in cupboards or cellars; most of them fade some fifty years after they were taken — unless they are recovered by Lee Shulman, a passionate collector, who works to preserve these precious episodes of our collective history.
The archivist’s passion
In 2017, Lee Shulman came into the possession of a box of anonymous slides. This chance finding propelled the filmmaker into a feverish quest: to assemble the fragments of a great collective fresco captured on photographic film. An archivist’s labor requires a lot of passion and a lot of patience. One must pore over some 800,000 photographs to keep only 15,000: “I hold on to photographs that tell a story and that provoke an intimate reaction. It’s an art project, so my choices are instinctive, personal,” explained Lee Shulman.
Passion, in fact, is the key ingredient of this collection. The day we spoke with Lee Shulman, he had just received a new box of slides dated 1951, which he couldn’t resist unpacking. So we got to witness, over the phone, the magical moment of discovery: “They are really beautiful…,” he rejoiced. And we could understand better how, within a few years, the project has taken on gigantic proportions, which made such a deep impression on Adélie Genestar de Ipanema, the founder of Polka. What appealed to her in The Anonymous Project was “the almost infinite, and therefore fascinating, character of an archive that tells the story of an astonishing era,” she said. “What’s interesting is that the archive assembled by The Anonymous Project is constantly growing, as people from all over the world send their boxes of negatives and slides care of its founder Lee Shulman. They don’t need them anymore: generations separate them from the people in the photos and it’s becoming more difficult to put names to the faces... Often, the photographs are considered as clutter more than anything else. So they are given away, passed on to this collector, not to say compulsive and passionate collector.”
Retro-cool and universality
The retro-cool aesthetics of The Anonymous Project’s photographs explains in part the immediate fascination these images exert on a contemporary audience. “When times are bleak, the soft palette of the Kodachrome film — perhaps the most famous process in analog photography of the last century — also evokes a sense of nostalgia, which is quite pleasant…,” noted Adélie Genestar de Ipanema. “The viewer can savor it like an epic novel that portrays a society that has now gone down in history books: the society of the post-World War II era, of the Glorious Thirties, as seen through the eyes of anonymous, unknown creators.” The golden age of Kodachrome slides spans the 1950s and 1960s. The film subsequently became more widely accessible, and therefore the pictures are of inferior quality: the best images in Lee Shulman’s archives date back to the sixties.
The success of The Anonymous Project, however, is not only a question of nostalgia or fascination with vintage photography. Rather, the images convey a sense of universality. “It’s a storyboard of our lives. The photos are not just about the past; they tell contemporary stories,” observed Lee Shulman. Scenes from daily life captured four or five decades ago remain familiar to us and instill a sense of belonging to a community that transcends geographical and temporal boundaries. “Seeing a child jumping into a puddle suggests continuity, because all children act the same way regardless of the period.” Lee Shulman’s program is about inclusiveness: “We’re all part of the same family.”
The Indiana Jones of film photography
The Anonymous Project lives up to its name: in four years, only one person has come forward to Lee Shulman after recognizing a relative in a photo. “This means that in just a few decades, we’re falling into anonymity and oblivion,” said Shulman. The characters in the great saga of The Anonymous Project, divested of their identities, become archetypal figures — not unlike human remains uncovered during archeological digs, whose way of life is reconstructed from artifacts. Lee Shulman appreciates the comparison: “I’m a big Indiana Jones fan, and when I come across particularly striking slides, I feel like I’ve found the Holy Grail.”
The photographers behind The Anonymous Project might be nameless, but Shulman is reluctant to call them amateurs: “Some of them were good photographers with technical know-how. I like to blur the line between professional and amateur photography. The question is not ‘who took the picture’, but ‘how do we interact with certain pictures?’” Adélie Genestar de Ipanema seconds this view: “Their images are not ordinary; on the contrary: some of them could rival the greatest photographers.”
Unlike most documentary photography, these images immortalize happy moments: “It’s not common these days to see images of communion and shared joy,” said Shulman. Another particularity of the collection is the intimate connection between the photographers and their subjects: “[The photographer] is often a friend, a mother, or a father. There is an emotional charge in these intimate moments and in the way the subject looks at the camera.”
The photos are intimate, but they are also political. Having mounted, in the early days of Brexit, the exhibition This is England at La Fab., the gallery of the Fondation d’Agnès b., Lee Shulman turned to the United States with the exhibition American Stories: “In these uncertain times, this was my way of doing something.”
By Joy Majdalani
The Anonymous Project: American Stories
Collection Capsule at the Polka Factory
From February 6 to April 3, 2021
12, rue Saint-Gilles
Prints from the collection available at the starting price of €100.
To discover The Anonymous Project, click here.