Breathing new life into thousands of anonymous photographs is a vast undertaking carried out for three years by an enthusiast. Lee Shulman and his associates create upbeat exhibitions and publications.
“These are my children!,” jokes Lee Shulman pointing to dozens of slides scattered on a backlit table. He spends entire days in his office in the heart of Paris unpacking boxfuls of images. They are shipped from the United States, UK, and France. Shulman buys them himself or receives donations. Most photographs were made by anonymous photographers between 1950 and 1980, when a camera would have been a relatively rare and precious object—long before it was shrunk to fit into a mobile phone.
“At that time, people had to make an effort to produce photos. Photography had a price, and it required some skill,” comments Lee Shulman. He recalls coming up with the idea of collecting anonymous photographs the day he randomly bought a box of old family slides on the internet, and felt overcome with emotion as he browsed through the images. He had the impression of rescuing them from oblivion, and felt that these photographs captured a certain mood they alone were able to record.
Therein lies the power of anonymous images. “I believe that portraits are so beautiful because there exists a very intimate relationship between the photographed subject and the photographer. They are the expression of a very precious sentiment,” notes Shulman. Indeed, most of the time, the photographer is a relative: a sister, a brother, a spouse, or a friend. The photographs tell a family story. The Anonymous Project unites a large family of thousands of photographs and displays them in innovative settings.
Last summer, Lee Shulman and his associated created a sensation at the Rencontres de la photographie in Arles. They redecorated an old residence in the style of 1950s–60s American homes and filled the space with photographs arranged on backlit surfaces. The imaginative installation was a trip back in time, putting the icing on the cake of the Festival’s program.
“We are trying to invent a new layout every time to display these photos,” explains Shulman, who is looking at new presentation formats with major museums. Thanks to some good press—in particular an article in the New York Times—the project has grown in scope. A few weeks ago, the publisher Taschen released a book entitled Midcentury Memories: The Anonymous Project, which traces human life from childhood to old age through a selection of the most beautiful anonymous photographs discovered by Lee Shulman.
“[This book] really represents a timeline stretching from infancy to the end of life,” says Shulman who feels lucky to have his book published by such a renowned publishing house, geared toward the general public. In addition to this publication, there have been smaller editions, each interesting in its own way. Thus two writers have snatched a few photos from The Anonymous Project to create unique stories published by Flammarion. Arnaud Cathrine based a novel about the relationship between two brothers on one vintage photo, whereas Justine Lévy constructed captions for a series of different images to compose her narrative.
It is no doubt because there is no predefined project behind these photographs that they seem so open to interpretation. And because they have no specific purpose beyond documenting moments in the life of the photographer’s loved ones, they let our imagination run wild. Everyone can tell their own story, see whatever they wish to see.
We can’t help but smile looking at a flock of children holding hands in a schoolyard, or those seated around a table and dressed up for a birthday party. We are moved by an elderly man accompanying his grandson to a park, and by an older woman contemplating a mountainous landscape that surpasses her in age. We end up feeling like we are a part of this extended family, and these anonymous portraits certainly reflect a bit of ourselves.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Midcentury Memories: The Anonymous Project
Taschen, 2019, 280 pp.
€40 / $60