Your Invitation to the Abyss

This is meant to be a process document on the concepts that evolved out of the People’s Photos Found Photo archive on Spillway.com.

The Archive began on Bayard St. in Brooklyn, New York which was the most amazing magnet for strange obscure materials. Brooklyn in general seems to be guilty of this as it is somewhat caught in the past and present simultaneously. Odd things would perpetually get dumped on Bayard St.

Originally, the archive was kept in a various photo albums that belonged to Comic Artist Sam Henderson. People brought and sent him photos from all over as he was connected to the Small Press Comics circuit.The flavor of Bayard street seemed to enhance this.

The albums were particularly interesting at parties where people would make their comments and reach their own conclusions about these mysterious worlds. This interesting human reaction of interaction seemed to perpetuate the albums further, as people who found out about the albums brought more finds, and these in turn would cause more reactions. The albums were like looking at some world that wanted to be forgotten, but then the reasons for forgetting that world could not be imagined.

After figuring out a structure and naming system, we decided we would set up a website as an experiment to see if the reaction would carry over to the internet. We scanned in and posted approximately eighty or so in various categories I pulled from an old thesaurus. We titled the photos the best we could, only to identify them. The categorization was really just an over-important parody of a real archive. We listed all the information we knew about the photo, like the date, the initials of the finder, and the circumstances by which it was found.  We decided that what identified a found photo, was that it had to be completely detached from anyone who knew the elements or persons within the picture.

We put the system online in December 1998 just in time for the holidays, and sent out about 50 emails to immediate people in the underground comics community, and to the people who had sent Sam the photos originally. We stated in the introduction, that if anyone recognized themselves or any of the individuals within the photo, all they needed to give proof, and we’d send the photo back. We invited people to send in comments about the photos. These would be edited manually.

Henderson’s part of the introduction covered mostly the history and the rules, while I took the more philosophical route and began to discuss what makes something found or lost. I found myself becoming a bit obsessed with this over the next year. From the intro:

There must be something said for favorable accidents and serendipity. The idea of an image being lost from the world, cast into oblivion, and found again must constitute a certain unseen force at play. It must make the image special and unusual in a certain way. An unexplainable reason for its existence. What we are faced with here, are a collection of these impossible moments that can be made possible again through meaning.

To complete a particular transit from ‘lostness’ to ‘foundness’ or one re- existing in the real world we share, the images must be interpreted and their very meanings re-established. This is why we have opened the channels for you the user, to complete the transit of meaning….

We also invited people to send in their own found photos, at first by mail, and then we decided to open it to email. We claimed we had some kind of  “Fullproof” system to tell if a photo was found or not. Our intention was not to exploit anyone, but to really discover the origins of these photos and situations as best we could.

Once we launched the site nothing happened. For months nothing seemed to happen. A few people had sent comments in, and we posted those dutifully. Instead of taking the site down, we decided to send out another fifty or so e-mails.

This seemed to work a bit more and the stats began to increase from week to week. The comments began to become more involved. The energy people put into their comments was quite fascinating. Around the spring of 1999 the site made  Yahoo Picks of the Week, and the traffic went beyond what my ISP could handle, as did the comments. We had approximately 600 for the month  of June 1999. Trying to keep up with the mail was becoming difficult. At times we were a month behind. Maybe three to four true found photos were appearing on a monthly basis. The site was getting many cross links from other sites, and appeared in some strange supplement of Entertainment Weekly, which never appeared in New York, although people were telling us it was there. Along with that, I was contacted by random organizations, like a genealogy magazine in Britain to do a written interview. They were fascinated from the standpoint of unearthing family connections. Other requests were more desperate, like a woman who was searching for a family album that was thrown away by mistake. We received mail from other people who had collections of their own. Collections that seemed to span years and contain hundreds of photos. There appeared to be an underground sub-culture of collectors. These people were the most enthralled by the site. I began to develop the theory that there were definitely people who acted as “Strange Attractors” of a kind, and had odd material  gravitate towards  them. I thought that it was an attraction combined with a sensibility.

I agree about your comment about some people being almost predisposed to find things. I’m 31 and in my life have found among the photos…. a 5 karat diamond ring when I was 10 I found 480 dollars in a discarded toilet paper box when looking for boxes to move with when I was 19. I found large bag of marijuana (like as big as a toaster) at the airport when I was 20. I found a huge gold necklace watching some track and field events at a local highschool when I was about 22. I found a Jade pendant valued at over 1000 on the floor in Wal-Mart last year and I found an endorsed US Federal check for 2,300 about a month ago. My Mom took the diamond ring…I kept the 480…I turned in the marijuana…..I sold the gold necklace….I still have the Jade pendant and I returned the endorsed check to it’s owners. (It had their home address on it)

I wouldn’t call it luck as I don’t believe in good/bad luck. I attribute it  more to a keen sense of observation…I’m always scanning the area without even noticing it. With exception of the cash….All the other items I found  were in plain view and in populated areas.

Take care and THANKS for your time.

Charles P.

Out of the many comments we received we only posted half on the site. I realized that by editing the posts constructively controlled the direction of the discussion. It was like a controlled feedback loop. If you put garbage into the loop, you got garbage out. If a comment was made that added to the experience of looking at the image, it went up. If a comment recognized something or connected something that was previously invisible, it went up. People began to invent character situations, and write dialogue scenes based on the images.  People started to create their own mythologies. The pictures, in a way, were becoming archetypes filled with symbols.

A great majority of the “easy” comments seemed to refer to popular culture, or whatever was in the mainstream at the time. I found these to be much less effective towards the goal of discovering what the photo was really about. Those comments were cut, unless they were from a unique perspective. We made a point of using abbreviations for the people’s comments or using code names so people would feel less inhibited about commenting. Most importantly we didn’t date anything. Everything was somehow all smashed up to the present moment. If we posted press we had gotten or notoriety, I found that the stats always went down. It was almost as if, users of the site were most interested in discovering something that was a unique experience to them, and hidden to everyone else. They were then more apt to forward the link on to a friend.  People were excited about discovering the site for the first time.

Another accidental device that seemed to perpetuate comments was the fact that we were far behind on the comment mail. This made the comments more like a competition, which only added to better writing. People who returned to the site, realized that they had to say something relevant, or their post would not make it. I felt that if we had a automated Bulletin Board  system of posting at the time, it would have hurt the overall quality of the comments and a certain additive sensibility.  If  all the comments had been about cheap humor, or media references about a current popular movie, they all would have taken that direction they would not have been about the analysis of the object.

I found that the most interesting comments seemed to be from women, who were taking the pictures apart element by element. They seemed to relate one object or person in the picture with the others, or look at the motivations.  They interpreted the images and their situations on a purely emotional level. I also discovered that the mysterious motivations within the photos created the interactivity. I think the more obscure the motivations and situations, the more the amplitude within the feedback loop increased.

Of course, all the photos we received weren’t usable. Many found photos, or photos for that matter, don’t say anything whatsoever. I would pick out the ones that would make good discussions. In some cases we received photos that were too vulgar. That wasn’t what the site was about. Although I remember one grisly porn snapshot someone had sent in that they had found within the coils of a refrigerator in the apartment they rented. It just kept getting weirder.

People also sent in photos that they had held onto for years and not known why. The photo had always been the topic of some sort of discussion and really a fetish object. An entire mythology and story came with the photo. Those were by far the best. We began to get photos that were very old as well, which I enjoyed even more, as they were even more lost.  Some people sent in photos that they had found mysteriously and which they believed had given them good luck for a job interview, or in another few cases, there were people who had seen the site online, gone out into the real world, and then found a mystery photo. One Civil Engineer said he had never found a photo in his life. I thought that not only was the site reacting and behaving because of its users, but its users were reacting and behaving differently because of the site.

One man from Mississippi had sent in some photos he had found on his front lawn after a tornado had passed through his community. He said the destruction after a tornado was unbelievable and people’s lives and debris would be scattered everywhere in the aftermath.  He didn’t know the people in the photos, but they must have meant something to someone. I would get an occasional request from a kid in school, who needed to use the site for a creative writing project, or needed character types for a project. I told him he could, but if he got an A he had to give us the report. If he got a D, it wasn’t our fault. I got a request form someone who wanted to go into business with us to make t-shirts and clothing of select photos. I got a request from a woman who was making a project of “God’s People” for her Church Sunday school class and wanted to use some of the photo references. She wrote back a week later to say that the project had been most successful with her kindergartner kids.  A Hollywood producer thought that the site had genuine “Game-Show” potential. A woman named Julie In Texas had taken a photo and put in on her own site (www.istoleyoursite.com) , and then went on to explain that she had gotten fired from her job, but not before she used some of the photos most effectively.

I want to write to THANK YOU for saving me my job.  Well, actually, your website bought me a few more days before they *finally* canned me.   You see, I had the dastardly task of shooting pics of all my fellow co-workers and posting them on the company “intranet” along with company bio’s.  As you may expect, plenty of drones were unwilling to take mug shots.  I warned them numerous times, and when it came close to deadline, there were approx 14 employees who didn’t have pictures taken.  This called for desperate measures.   I was pretending to be working that day when I stumbled upon your site by accident.  #23 became our CEO, #423 was the Customer Service trainer, and #448 was our receptionist, and so on.  I still got fired and so just for fun, I used your photos to post bogus internet auctions on the trading site. I claimed that I owned the human disposal depository in pic #310, claiming it was a port-o-pot visited by Robert Downey Jr., and the contents left inside that facility had a street value alone of $800…unfortunately, the starting bid was only $135.

I am one of your smallest fans (I weigh less than 100 lbs.) and have told all my enemies about spillway.com.

yours (as long as those southern comfort binges don’t count) faithfully,
-unemployed and snickering
Dallas, Tx

Some of the photos began to appear in other places. A famous Mullet site had absconded with another found photo someone had sent in and an inventive character description had seemingly created itself. People intermittently began to hijack the photos into forums around the net. In most cases there was a reactionary discussion after the picture was posted in a forum. It was almost as if the photos by their very nature caused discussion. People began to use the photos as avatar images,  or as joke bio pictures in profiles.

Much of the viral impact and the perspective of the site began to concern me slightly. We literally only received three or four pieces of mail out of hundreds and hundreds that were negative in that the site was exploitative. Mostly people just laughed and were astonished by how strange human existence can be and thanked us for conceptualizing this.  I kept asking myself, where does someone draw the line between intimacy and technology, when one completely eradicates the other.

I realized that one had to have an awesome respect for these elements in a strange way, as they were so close to oblivion, and with age became more and more enveloped in the void. The older photos really fell into the realm of Archeology. Could there be archeology from ten years ago? At what point does something become archeological? Is technology changing this gap quicker than we think, or is it widening it by making all points in time more accessible?

I vowed to stop the experiment when we got a positive I.D.. By this, I meant someone who had recognized themselves, or someone they knew. They would get their photo back, and would win a special prize, like five more found photos or something. But this never happened in three years. I thought one woman had nailed it when she thought she recognized her sister in one unflattering photo, and said she would show the site to her sister and her sister’s family over Thanksgiving to make sure.  Her sister had never lived in LA in the 1970s however, where the photo was found.  I never heard back from the woman.

I almost began to believe that out of the thousands and thousands of people who had rifled through the site, someone had seen themselves or someone, or something more personal than public, but ironically went unrecognized. They had not made the correct associations or connections. A familiar element might have been missing. I realized I wouldn’t even recognize a picture of myself from twenty years ago, if there were no associations, or the photo was totally out of context.

I started reading more and more about the fine artist Joseph Cornell, and his associative theories. He believed, through his studies as an observant Christian Scientist, that our entire perception of the world is made up of only associations. You take the associations away and you no longer have the world. This theory led straight to the Surrealists, and their “Ready Made Art” which all in all seems to be a symptom of the post modern 20th century.

Also, by its very nature, any kind of treasure or found item is a complete contradiction between something that is both fixed and lost simultaneously. It contains both of these qualities as an object.

In November of 2000 as the craze of the internet began its economic meltdown, I was contacted by USA today about a phone interview and article regarding the People’s Photos. By this time, I realized that the problem with any cult project is that at its best, the or creator becomes a slave to that cult. The idea of putting out a mainstream article about such a fringe subject intrigued as much as it disturbed me. I asked myself if privacy was null if limited by accessibility? Was privacy threatened digitally by mainstream conservatism.

As the article appeared in this mainstream format, I noticed that the voices that were responding to the photos, had less and less to say.  At that time I had also installed automated CGI boards which were just simple guest-books for the latest top seven found photos. There was no editorial on these top seven photos. Much of the quality of the posts declined due to this immediately. People seemed more interested in posting their comments, if they were not threatened by the other comments, and perspectives. The same laws remained from before.  Adding to the experience made others add to the experience. What was also interesting, was that people did not think about what they were saying, as they had no human who judged what they were saying before. It was clear also that the more vulnerable the content of the photos, the more depraved and detached the posting was.

After the article, I received a request for a photo which appeared in print of a man riding a bicycle on what looked like a road in Florida. The man seemed as though he were in the middle of nowhere. One identifiable and unusual element in the photo was the fact that the man was riding a woman’s bicycle. The picture looked as though it was from the mid sixties. I think I found the photo on a Brooklyn street somewhere years before and scanned it in. The request was short and said that the picture was of her father in the fifties who had retired in Florida. The woman requested that she needed to see the photo to be sure, and I told her I’d send it. As I found the actual photo in my files and examined the back of it, I discovered words in a woman’s handwriting that I had completely missed when I scanned and titled the photo originally. The writing said:, “Summer 1948 Nantucket”. I wrote the woman back and told her about my discovery. She then told me to send the photo anyway and to “proceed as planned”. This humorless reaction was what I had feared with the entire experiment in general. It is the point when the project’s conceptual open-ended nature had been closed due to something that had happened in a stranger’s past. I suppose it’s the point when all open ended projects end. The project was not ironic, mysterious or humorous to this woman as she was projecting something that psychologically hurt her into the photo. She was obviously threatened by the photo in some strange subtle way. By sending the photo to her, it also seemed to her as though the picture would become un-digitized. I didn’t tell her this, as I’m not sure she was capable of understanding, but the photo had been distributed electronically across the world to thousands of computers, and had appeared in a national news paper. I sent her the photo anyway, hoping she found what she was looking for within it.

I began to ask myself if users were keying into all this, because they were identifying with something they lost within themselves? I realized that any collection was a way of filling in an emotional gap on a basic level. The idea of individuals who coveted someone else’s lost objects dictated something even more profound for everyone involved. Were we all obsessed with the gray space of lostness because we wanted to be connected to something personal. We were all perpetually detached.

Something also rang true as far as the rawness of these images were concerned and the comments that grew from them.  This dealt with the voice. I think the experience of the archive worked best when the voice and perspective was the strongest. I think that this is above all what people need to do when sifting through the sensory overload that is the web. People fundamentally look for true voices. They don’t respond the same way to information that is homogenized or that is trying to fool the user for commercial reasons. When you are asking directions you look for a true voice.

If one examines the project as a type of organic system, one would align it to an organism which is highly random in nature, viral in its level of abstraction and association, and which seems to subsist in a perpetual gray area.

I’ve begun to theorize that that end point of the internet is found media.  Expansion of spillway towards discovery is the key. Is the act of web browsing really the virtualization of discovery? It is discovery, not on a physical level, but on a clean stripped out informational level?

J. F. Culhane
© 2001

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